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Panhandlers anonymous

By | National Post on Jan 08 2015

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There may be people out there who sit around thinking, “Gee, this city could use some more panhandlers and squeegee kids,” but I have yet to meet them. In any city. In any country. At any time. Regardless of what solutions are considered best, most of us consider begging a problem.

There are those who focus on the problem begging can pose to the people being solicited. It’s intimidating to be asked for money as you leave a bank machine. If it’s late at night and the person asking for the cash looks imposing or threatening, it can be downright scary.

Others focus on the problem begging represents for the people doing the asking. Usually, though not always, people panhandle because they have nowhere to go, no job to rely on, and no meaningful family support. Sometimes that’s their own doing. Sometimes it’s not. Often, though not always, they suffer from addictions of one sort or another.

Both sets of problems are real and troubling.

But with new calls coming for Ontario to repeal its Safe Streets Act, which bans squeegee kids and aggressive panhandling, it’s worth rethinking how to address both sets of problems while doing the least harm.

Unsurprisingly, after the Mike Harris government passed the Safe Streets Act in 1999, Toronto saw the amount of squeegeeing and begging in the city drop. According to York University Professor Stephen Goetz (who is among the act’s vocal critics), panhandling and squeegeeing “declined dramatically” in the city between 2000 and 2010. Anecdotally, I can attest that when I first moved back to Toronto in 2002, I was approached fairly routinely by squeegee kids in certain areas of the city, but can’t recall having seen a single one in the past four years.

So in at least one sense, simply banning the begging, and issuing tickets and fines to offenders, appears to have worked. It has apparently reduced the prevalence of the problematic activity.

The question is: At what cost?

In financial terms, the Toronto Star has estimated that it cost Toronto police nearly $1-million to enforce the Safe Streets Act between 2000 and 2010. In theory, that expense would be offset by the $4-million in fines that the police issued during the same time period. In practice, squeegee kids and panhandlers tend not to be a particularly reliable source of funds. So, 99% of the fines were not paid.

It is also important to remember that the Safe Streets Act places explicit limits on freedom of expression, a Charter right which should not be taken lightly. The courts have ruled that the act is nonetheless constitutional because the infringement is justified to protect public safety.

Still, it’s worth contemplating whether it offends our sense of equality and justice to prohibit some classes of people from asking for money, while allowing others to make the exact same request under the exact same circumstances.

For example, take the bank machine scenario I mentioned earlier. Under the Safe Streets Act, John Doe is breaking the law if he approaches me as I leave the ATM and asks me if I can spare some change to help feed his kids. Yet for someone who works for a charity registered with the CRA, it is perfectly legal to catch me walking away from the bank machine, stuffing my wallet back in my purse, and ask me if I can spare some change to help feed someone else’s kids.

Since I happen to work for a registered charity myself, I could potentially benefit from this double standard.

I don’t, however, believe it to be very useful, except to illustrate that a large part of what the Safe Streets Act may really be designed to protect is not so much safety as a pleasant experience.

At no point would I argue against the merits of a pleasant experience. It’s just that we don’t usually consider preserving a pleasant experience to be reason enough to legally prohibit unpleasant questions. I’m not sure how Parliament, psychotherapy or political protests would proceed if we did.

Former Ontario Attorney General Michael Bryant, who is helping lead the call for the Safe Streets Act’s repeal, says the law “criminalizes homelessness.” “Let’s stop arresting the poor for being poor,” he implores. Those are overstatements.

Still, chewing on the question of what we give up in exchange for bans on panhandling — equal treatment by the government, free expression — is a worthwhile exercise. So is measuring joblessness, addiction, and homelessness.

Banning the expression of a problem does not make the problem go away.

Originally published with the National Post

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