Valerie Warmington

COLUMN: Bylaw not the answer to panhandling problem

Councillor Robin Cherbo recently wrote about panhandling in his column and as a start to this year I have decided to do the same.

Happy 2016! I hope this new year holds much good in store for you.

Ending last year, councillor Robin Cherbo wrote about panhandling and poverty in his column and as a start to this year I have decided to do the same. In particular, I have been thinking about the motion for a bylaw adapted from provincial safe streets legislation which defines and regulates aggressive panhandling and also bans panhandling near businesses and public amenities. If passed, it will give bylaw officers the authority to fine non-compliant panhandlers as an alternative to engaging the police and judicial system as is currently the case.

The motion is in response to reports that businesses are losing customers because of the high number of panhandlers on the street. Although the proposed bylaw does not include new restrictions on panhandling, it may allow for more day-to-day enforcement of existing restrictions. Of concern are the unintended effects on panhandlers of more day-to-day enforcement of restrictions.

Research elsewhere has shown that restrictions increase the vulnerability of panhandlers by reducing their income and their connection to community. Studies report increased participation in higher risk activities (theft, drugs, prostitution, etc.) amongst people trying to cope with the loss of panhandling income. These factors make it harder for people to improve their situation and promote the poor mental health, substance abuse and other symptoms sometimes associated with poverty.

Not surprisingly, efforts to regulate panhandling have been challenged repeatedly on constitutional grounds for discriminating against those living in poverty. The Supreme Court of Canada has declined to hear the constitutional challenge but lower courts have generally found in favour of regulation as long as there remains reasonable opportunity for people to publicly ask for money.

Safe street laws have thus endured but after 15 years of regulation and enforcement, cities across Canada continue to struggle with ever higher levels of panhandling and other unwanted street activity. Courts are too overwhelmed to prosecute such minor offences and even when prosecuted and penalized, those with few alternatives continue to repeatedly engage in panhandling and other poverty-related offences. Where bylaws are in place and fines issued, the problems persist as most municipalities also lack capacity to respond effectively.

The reality is that more and more people are unable to generate an adequate income. Consequently, researchers and practitioners on all sides of this issue agree that regulation and enforcement are not enough and that improved and targeted employment, social service, treatment and public education are required. I would further echo councillor Cherbo and suggest that living wages and higher social assistance rates are also needed.

Undeniably, it is in everyone’s best interest that business districts thrive and that people feel safe on the streets, but in achieving these goals we can do better than simply making poverty invisible. Many communities are striving for new and better approaches to address panhandling and poverty more generally.

Nelson’s new street culture collaborative aims to bring together the knowledge and creativity of everyone involved in and impacted by panhandling and other street activities. I believe this effort represents an exciting opportunity to open our hearts and minds so that no one loses and everyone gains. As always I look forward to hearing your thoughts and encourage your input to the discussion in advance of the proposed bylaw being considered.

Nelson city councillor Valerie Warmington shares this space weekly with her council colleagues.

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