Earlier this summer, a photo of a Peterborough panhandler named Doug went viral on social media. Someone had given Doug fifty dollars, and then taken a picture of him smiling with the money on the corner of Water and Charlotte Streets.
Thousands of likes, comments, and shares followed, revealing a large community of people who had been touched in one way or another by Doug’s past kindness. People shared stories of him holding doors open for others, helping to carry patio furniture, giving bouquets of lilacs to strangers, and using some of his change to fill people’s expired parking meters. Over and over, people celebrated Doug’s generous heart, and the role he plays in the downtown community. It was a feel-good story of humility and kindness—exactly the kind of thing that does well on social media.
But the overwhelmingly positive reaction to Doug’s photo online belies the equally ardent frustration and resentment many Peterborough residents feel towards panhandlers in the city. Blamed by business owners for slow sales, feared as violent by many in our elderly community, and demonized by others simply for living in poverty, Peterborough’s small but visible population of panhandlers has become a political flashpoint in recent years, with multiple city departments (including the Mayor’s office) concerned about reducing the number of panhandlers in the city’s downtown core.
“We have an ongoing problem with panhandlers that we have not been able to address,” said Otonabee Ward Councillor Lesley Parnell at a City Council meeting earlier this year, when $150,000 per year was allocated to the Downtown Business Improvement Area (DBIA) to spend on security. “By giving this money to the DBIA to protect the downtown maybe we can get rid of the panhandlers, so I do see this as a positive.”
The flawed logic in this argument—the idea that we need to remove people from downtown in order to attract more people downtown—is revealing of what Parnell and others really mean, which is that we need to get the right kind of people downtown, namely those with disposable income.
Public space, it would seem, is for those who can afford it, or at the very least, for those who don’t make people with money feel uncomfortable.
The City and the DBIA are developing initiatives that will address the presence of panhandling downtown. As of now, it’s still unclear whether these initiatives will take into account the complex factors that lead people to panhandle, and whether they will be sensitive to the vulnerability of Peterborough’s street population.
Chad Corley remembers panhandling in downtown Peterborough. He started out busking, but when he could no longer keep an instrument he turned to begging to make extra money.
Corley doesn’t panhandle anymore, and he’s glad for it. “Panhandling in Peterborough, it’s really hard now,” he says. “Now they’ve got the problem with the downtown, trying to liven it up and [clean up] all the eyesores. No one shops downtown anymore, and they blame it on panhandlers. If students get rowdy and windows gets smashed they blame it on the street people.”
Corley says that most passersby downtown will ignore panhandlers. “They treat them as ghosts,” he says. Some people act politely, or even give money. But every panhandler will also experience some form of harassment, Corley says.
“They kick your hat, [or yell] ‘get a job,’ and it even gets violent where they’re almost demanding you to get up off the street or they’re going to hurt you, you know physically.”
Panhandling has increased significantly in the last decade or so in Peterborough, which is one reason why Corley says it’s harder to be a panhandler now than it used to be. He says panhandlers make about a quarter of what they did 10 or 15 years ago.
As might be expected, panhandlers are being policed more than they used to be as well. The number of tickets issued under the Safe Streets Act, which prohibits aggressive panhandling and panhandling in certain areas, has spiked recently. The Safe Streets Act came into effect in 2000, and statistics obtained through a Freedom of Information request show that the Peterborough Police used it sparingly at first, just two or three times a year on average until 2014. Then the numbers jumped. In 2016, there were 19 tickets given. There were five given in the first three months of 2017, a pace that would lead to 20 tickets over the whole year if continued.
19 or 20 tickets might not sound like a lot, but the increase is extreme, and it reflects the growing unease about the presence of poverty downtown.
Lauren Gilchrist, a spokesperson for the Peterborough Police, says the service hasn’t changed its policy or approach regarding panhandlers.
“Many of these incidents are complaint driven, so it is likely that we received more complaints those [recent] years and subsequently, after examining each incident, issued more tickets,” Gilchrist said.
It’s unsurprising that complaints about panhandlers have increased, given the current climate of resentment and fear towards them. But punitive responses to panhandling like ticketing are often criticized as inhumane and ineffective. And outside of Peterborough, a growing chorus of voices from across the province is calling for the repeal of the Safe Streets Act.
In the 1990s, a panic took hold in Toronto over the presence of homeless youth in the streets, many of whom were squeegeeing cars and panhandling. In 1999, the Mike Harris government passed the Safe Streets Act to give Ontario police broader powers to ticket these individuals. The act bans aggressive panhandling (vaguely defined as solicitation “in a manner likely to cause a reasonable person to be concerned for their safety”) and panhandling in certain places, like next to bus stops or banks, in parking lots, and close to cars.
A study has shown that despite a drop in panhandling in Toronto in the ten years since the act was passed, tickets for panhandling increased exponentially, to the point where 15,000 tickets were given in 2010, 99% of which went unpaid (administering these tickets, it should be noted, cost the Toronto Police Service almost $1 million over the ten years).
The study also showed that 80% of the tickets issued were not for aggressive panhandling, but for non-aggressive solicitation in places where it was prohibited, meaning individuals were being ticketed for being visibly poor in places where the public would rather not encounter poverty.
Kristy Buccieri, Assistant Professor of Sociology at Trent University, writes and teaches about the Safe Streets Act. She describes ticketing panhandlers as “a counter-intuitive strategy.”
“People panhandle because they’re trying to make money; they’re trying to get off the street,” she says.
“Taking money away from them by disallowing the activity and actually fining them means they’re less likely to get [off the street]. It’s a really backwards strategy to try and stop a behaviour.”
Failure to pay for panhandling tickets also means more involvement with the justice system, and more barriers to getting a job, renting an apartment, getting a loan, or getting photo ID.
Furthermore, while the Safe Streets Act purports to target people who are dangerous, panhandlers don’t tend to fit that profile.
“The research shows that individuals who panhandle tend to be better off [than others living in poverty],” Buccieri says. “They tend to use less substances, they tend to be less criminally involved, they tend to have more secure social relationships. So, in some ways, it should be something we’re encouraging.”
Buccieri is part of the Coalition for the Repeal of Ontario’s Safe Streets Act, an advocacy group arguing that the act criminalizes poverty and is ineffective, expensive, and unconstitutional. Even former attorney general Michael Bryant is a member of the Coalition, and he says he regrets his failure to repeal the act when he had the chance.
A constitutional challenge of the act was unsuccessful in 2006, and the Supreme Court of Canada subsequently declined to review the case. More recently, NDP MPP Cheri DiNovo has introduced private member’s bills to repeal the act, but Liberal and Conservative MPPs have been unsympathetic. In June of this year, however, Fair Change Community Legal Clinic launched another constitutional challenge, and hope to have it heard next summer, if the act isn’t repealed by then.
Meanwhile, in Peterborough, community leaders and business owners are meeting to develop local strategies to address what one downtown business owner calls an “epidemic” of panhandling. Some want to see more law enforcement and security downtown, while others are pushing for more creative solutions. It’s yet to be seen which approach our community will take.
Much of the responsibility to address panhandling in Peterborough has fallen to Terry Guiel, executive director of the Downtown Business Improvement Area (DBIA). It’s not something he’s thrilled about. He sees panhandling as a symptom of municipal and provincial failures to support people with mental health and addictions issues, and doesn’t think the DBIA is equipped to deal with the complex issues of systemic poverty.
“It’s funny how it’s my responsibility somehow,” Guiel says. “This is a mental health issue. This is a social service issue. It’s not a DBIA issue. I’m not an expert on poverty or mental health. So don’t ask me to come up with a miracle solution to something that’s been around since the Roman Empire.”
But people are asking him. The presence of panhandlers is the number one complaint the DBIA gets from people who use the downtown, and Guiel says he has business owners yelling at him to address the issue somehow.
With new money coming from City Council for this purpose, Guiel is in a position to try something out.
But the DBIA’s board of directors disagrees about how to use that money, with some favouring a punitive response and an increased security presence, and others hoping to use the money in more constructive, caring ways.
Guiel is in the latter group. “As long as I’m at the helm of the DBIA, it will be as positive and caring as I possibly can. And it has to be non-punitive.”
The DBIA is exploring two options. The first is hiring panhandlers to do routine clean up work in the downtown, providing them with employment and a way of visibly contributing to the downtown community. The other is hiring “ambassadors,” people who would be present downtown with recognizable clothing who could answer questions, give support, and, presumably, provide a sense of security. Guiel says programs like these have been successful in other cities, though they would need to be designed carefully, with input from the panhandling community, before being implemented in Peterborough.
Both these approaches present challenges. For example, many people who panhandle do so to earn unreported income because they are under financial trusteeship and don’t have control over how their money is spent. For these individuals, it’s not clear that earning reported income by cleaning up the streets would be a good alternative to panhandling.
The success of an ambassador program would depend on how exactly their role was defined. If they focussed on supporting the needs of panhandlers as well as shoppers, and facilitated relationships between the two, they might be a positive presence in the downtown.
There is a risk though, that they could become agents of intimidation, security guards in all but name.
How exactly these initiatives will look when implemented is unclear, but that is because the DBIA is still looking into the possibilities. “We’re going to do some research and figure out what the Peterborough solution is,” says Guiel.
[Editor’s note: since this article went to print, the DBIA has launched a pilot version of their ambassador program. The ambassadors, hired through a local security service, will have a number of responsibilities: in addition to providing “tourism and visitor information such as locating certain businesses, parking locations and downtown events,” they will “handle aggressive and/or inappropriate behaviours,” “provide security and safety assistance for businesses when it is appropriate,” and “respond to vandalism, littering and graffiti in downtown as well as irresponsible pet owners.” Electric City Magazine will continue to investigate.]
As the DBIA develops a plan for addressing the presence of panhandlers downtown, and debates what approaches will be most effective and compassionate, the very premise of this debate, the idea that panhandlers are a problem we need a solution to, tends to go unquestioned.
Poverty is a problem we need a solution to. But are panhandlers?
The presence of panhandling in Peterborough should be an indication that our governments and communities need to direct more resources towards supporting people living in poverty. Until this happens, we should acknowledge that for many individuals struggling with poverty government support is insufficient or inaccessible, leaving them with no options other than asking for extra help on the street. These people should be respected.
“It’s a perception issue, I think,” says Town Ward Councillor and DBIA board member Diane Therrien. “So we need to work to get past that and humanize [panhandlers]. A lot of the time even if you just smile and say hi they’re just happy to be treated like a normal human, like you would treat your neighbour.”
Natalie Napier, who the DBIA has hired to help research the issue, echoes Therrien’s sentiment. “People are perceiving that there’s risk and more crime downtown, [but] we know from statistics that downtown is the safest ward in the city,” she says.
Panhandlers don’t pose a threat to the public. Some people might feel uncomfortable or annoyed by them, but life in public can be uncomfortable and annoying for all sorts of reasons; panhandlers no doubt find it quite annoying that our economic system doesn’t work for them.
If there is a problem with panhandling in Peterborough, it is a problem of perception, and of some people’s intolerance to sharing public space with the poor. The solution to this is not emptying the streets of panhandlers, but building better relationships between panhandlers and the other people using the downtown.
This is an idea Napier is excited about: “I’m interested in looking at the kind of interactions that people have [with panhandlers], and the factors that shape those interactions, and I’m interested in looking at how we can engineer better interactions,” she says.
More than anything else, the DBIA’s initiatives need to help to facilitate these relationships. If they do, they might help to make the downtown more comfortable, not just for shoppers, but for panhandlers too.
Illustrations by B Mroz.