LETTER: Discussion needed before adopting bylaw

Reader George Chandler: "This would not only be bad law, it would be a civic response lacking compassion and common sense."

Re: “Nelson launches panhandling bylaw

There is a legal adage that “hard cases make bad law,” meaning that an extreme case is a poor basis for a general law that would cover a wider range of less extreme cases. I can’t help but wonder if this is what is happening around particular manifestation of poverty in our community, that is so-called aggressive panhandling, and the response, which is the panhandling bylaw making its way of through city council.

I have questions.

In trying to address a potential public safety issue, are we seeking to ban a group of people from the public space, people who have every right to be there, just because we find them different, sometimes unfathomable, and sometimes uncomfortable to be around. This would not only be bad law, it would be a civic response lacking compassion and common sense.

How serious a public safety issue is this? Where an issue of public safety on the sidewalks emerges, of course it has to be addressed. I walk the length of Baker St. on a very regular basis, and although I have been asked or invited by a sign to give money on many, many occasions, I can’t recall ever being solicited aggressively. I have no doubt that aggressive behavior has happened, so perhaps there does need to be some attention paid, some parameters created. But also isn’t some deeper analysis, some actual evidence required before we act?

How much of what is being called aggressive panhandling is really at its core a mental health issue?

Can those of us who encounter panhandlers do a more honest job of owning our individual response? Certainly some of what I think is being called “aggressive” behaviour on the part of panhandlers is really a simple combination of their presence/begging behavior and our own discomfort, confusion and judgements that we feel when we encounter someone asking for our help and our money. Not all panhandlers are needy, not all are even portraying a true story. As I said, I have not experienced aggression by panhandlers, but I freely acknowledge that trying to figure out what I do feel and what I should do is a complex and personal process.

Don’t we all want to see our community become an even better place in which to live and visit? Although it is true that during the warmer months there are more temporary, even transient, people in town, the actual face of poverty in Nelson is one that we have to own.

The facts simply don’t bear out that transients are responsible for metaphorically eating up social services budgets, or literally eating up supplies at food banks and meal programs. Ask those working in these services and they will tell you the vast majority of their clients all year long are fellow citizens who call Nelson home.

Should it be five feet or ten feet as the appropriate and legal distance for panhandlers to be from businesses, banks, etc.? I am not sure I even want to enter the debate, although ten feet does seem a de facto banishment from the sidewalk.  A general panhandling law, if we are to have one, is better drafted around the circumstances that are more common than the “hard case” of aggressive panhandling. I also feel that in addressing broad issues like poverty, or more specific issues like concerns around panhandling, we would be so much better served, before we make a law, by entering into an authentic discussion with a wide range of those affected. Let’s definitely hear from people who feel unsafe, from business owners who are worried.

But let’s also take a bold step of including others, not often heard from, in this discussion — a busker, a panhandler, a person who feels comfortable giving money to others, and a person who admits to discomfort, confusion and judgement when approached to give money.

Isn’t there a chance that this kind of open, vulnerable, somewhat unpredictable dialogue could lead us to make both better law and a wiser, better informed and more compassionate community?

George Chandler


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