Begging to differ

Local merchants, not social services, take on panhandlers

Begging to differFor retailers who set up shop on Spring Garden Road in downtown Halifax, staying in business is literally an uphill battle. Thirty thousand fewer people live in the regional centre now compared to 50 years ago. And tourists who visit the city’s waterfront must tackle a steep climb to access the 500-m shopping strip. Which explains why, when Spring Garden Area Business Association (SGABA) manager Bernard Smith began hearing complaints from shoppers about panhandlers several years ago, he listened. And though his attempts to propel the city and province to action have been largely unsuccessful, he says, “We’ve made our own infrastructure to deal with the situation.” On top of hiring private security guards to keep beggars from blocking sidewalks, Smith began paying panhandlers to water the flowers or shovel the snow. Before long, he found them jobs in recycling depots. “We’ll give him steel-toed boots, gloves, a hard hat—whatever it takes to get that guy employed,” he says. In several cases, the SGABA has even paid the security deposit on an apartment.

Despite these efforts, panhandling persists; it often takes more than a job offer to get those with addiction or mental health issues off the street. So recently, another group of Halifax merchants began touting an approach that’s less carrot and more stick: a bylaw against aggressive panhandling. According to Paul MacKinnon, executive director of the Downtown Halifax Business Commission, such legislation would impose a fine on those who heckle or touch passersby, and for repeat offenders, jail time. “We want to make [panhandling] a bit more uncomfortable.”

That it’s business, not government, driving policy is not unique. Since the ’90s, rising housing costs, cuts to social services and deinstitutionalization of the mentally ill has created a perfect storm for poverty. (A recent Calgary Homeless Foundation report found the number of homeless in that city has quadrupled in the past decade.) At the same time, the push for urban living has led to downtown revitalization efforts and gentrification; more often than not, says University of Winnipeg professor Tom Carter, who authored a 2007 study on panhandling, business owners are on the front lines. “This problem is on their doorstep,” he says. And not all of their solutions are as orientated to the welfare of panhandlers as Smith’s.

Ontario and B.C., as well as a number of cities in other provinces, have already legislated against so-called “aggressive panhandling,” and restrict when and where it can occur. Most measures resemble what’s in place in Saskatoon, where beggars can face a $100 fine for approaching vehicles, or pedestrians within 10 m of financial institutions, bank machines and bus stops. (A third offence carries a fine of up to $10,000, and those who default face up to a year in jail.) In Montreal, there are no specific panhandling bylaws, but it’s illegal to sleep in parks or to lie down drunk. Though Calgary failed in its attempt to require panhandlers to obtain a licence (as is the case in a number of U.S. cities), it has a caveat: in Stampede City, all begging is outlawed between 8 p.m. and 8 a.m.

Since 2000, the Downtown Vancouver Business Improvement Association has employed private security guards, dubbed “downtown ambassadors,” in part to address panhandling. Association executive director Charles Gauthier says the guards “are out there to provide people with assurance,” and, while they may keep beggars off private property, “they have no enforcement ability” on public property. (Merchant groups in Winnipeg and Regina have also hired private security.) But according to Pivot Legal Society, the security guards are going beyond their jurisdiction: a complaint, scheduled to go before the B.C. Human Rights Tribunal next May, alleges they are discriminating against Aboriginal and disabled people in a pre-Olympic push to clean up the city.

Gauging the effect—and effectiveness—of such measures is difficult, because what marks success for the business community and for panhandlers themselves is often quite different. According to Carter, Canada Research Chair in urban change and adaptation, while there may be an initial enforcement rush after a bylaw is passed, police soon “realize the futility” of fining someone who is begging to survive. But even if the application is lax, the trouble with bylaws, he says, is that they signal a policing, rather than a social welfare, approach. In his study, most of the 75 panhandlers surveyed didn’t even know that anti-begging legislation existed. (In Winnipeg, where, if distance regulations were enforced, large areas of downtown would be panhandler-free, there is also a human rights challenge under way.)

For his part, Smith is torn about the push for legislation in Halifax. Though he supports the move “on the surface,” he says that until widespread addiction and mental health treatment options exist, “it’s not responsible or kind to try to legislate stuff under the table.”