COLUMN: Panhandling bylaw: ‘I don’t want to wait until 2017’

"We are not discussing pipes in the ground, but people, and that can get complicated."

In the nearly twelve years I’ve been on city council, I’ve never seen a proposed bylaw garner as much discussion and debate as the panhandling bylaw. The process for bylaws is fairly straightforward the majority of discussion and debate happens at first reading. There may be further discussion with added information at second reading. By the time it hits third reading and final adoption, there is rarely any further discussion.

That has not been the case for this bylaw which indicates how complex this issue really is. We are not discussing pipes in the ground, but people, and that can get complicated.

So why did council balk for the second time? From my perspective, the debate rested on two main issues: adopting a panhandling bylaw per se would not address all the issues we are experiencing on the street, and people want to see what the work of the Street Culture Collaborative will achieve before considering a bylaw.

In the meantime, we have a busy summer season upon us and people are asking for action now. I think we can all agree there is no silver bullet. I believe good decisions regarding public policy are spiced with ample portions of compassion, understanding and common sense. And I don’t want to wait until 2017 to take action.

The collaborative has nearly raised enough funding to finance a year-long pilot project that will see two outreach workers on the street by September. I support the work of the collaborative and appreciate that this group is truly representative of our diverse community people from the business sector, social sector, police, health, and others have all committed to finding long-term solutions to complicated social issues.

They agree solutions must be multi-faceted with everyone pulling in the same direction. I think that includes clear guidelines and leadership from the city.

Over the past few months, I’ve engaged in conversations with a variety of people about issues in the downtown core. Occasional aggressive panhandling does not tell the entire story. People are concerned about other issues ranging from abusive language to obstruction, questionable activity and I’m sad to say occasional racist comments. As council, we have the responsibility to ensure our public spaces are safe and enjoyed by all. I think the pressures we are experiencing in the downtown core need to be addressed in a holistic and practical way.

We do not want people to begin avoiding coming downtown as some of you have shared with me.

One available option is for the city to include specifics like busking and panhandling under a broadly defined traffic bylaw.

You might think of it as our own “safe streets” bylaw. It would provide tools that bylaw enforcement and police could use when necessary and it could be one of the multi-faceted approaches we are looking for. City staff are researching this option.

This tool reminded me of a document I came across as a newly elected councillor. The city of Montreal developed its own Charter of Rights and Responsibilities some time ago.

This document may be a road map for us to customize our own charter, or mini charters as we develop our own strategies.

It appeals to me because it speaks to great freedoms, but also to responsibilities.

We are fortunate to have an active and vibrant downtown where residents, visitors, shoppers, business owners and people who thrive on street activity can come together.

It’s worth protecting. Sometimes people need to be reminded that respectful interaction is a responsibility. It doesn’t take away from the vibrancy and joy, it enhances it.

I look forward to continuing this conversation with you when I see you downtown.

Mayor Deb Kozak shares this weekly space with her city council colleagues.

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