Do we really want to be a city that bans begging?
In a salvo aimed directly at the city's poor, high-profile Fordists last week urged the province to give police more authority to crack down on panhandling.
"We need to change the legislation to allow us to take people off the streets and put them into the hospitals where they belong, in many cases," Giorgio Mammoliti, chair of the homeless task force, told the press.
Deputy mayor Doug Holyday believes panhandlers are flocking here because our laws are softer than those in cities like Montreal.
"I think that by being lenient we're actually inviting people to come," he told NOW. "We have to have something that deters them."
Police laid 15,551 panhandling charges in 2010, but Mammoliti and Holyday say that hasn't worked. Both feel the current Safe Streets Act is inadequate because it limits authorities to charging aggressive panhandlers, while their mission is to rid the streets of everyone seeking spare change.
In fact, there's strong evidence that support services are more effective than police power. The question is, will they survive the current cost-slashing mania at City Hall?
Between 2006 and 2009, the number of homeless people who reported panhandling as a source of income dropped from 17.4 to 9.7 per cent, a drastic reduction attributable to the Streets To Homes program that places homeless people in housing almost immediately, bypassing the traditional vetting process to make them "home-ready."
Like all other city divisions, the housing administration that runs Streets To Homes has been asked to cut its budget by 10 per cent next year.
"The thing that's so ironic about councillors speaking out about panhandling is that their proposed cuts will increase the number of people needing to panhandle," says Cathy Crowe, director of the Toronto Disaster Relief Committee.
"All over the city there is a massive network of drop-in centres that provide major meals, and they all rely on Community grants."
Those drop-in centres as well as organizations like St. Christopher House, which runs education and employment programs, and food security group FoodShare receive funding through the city's $47 ?million Community Partnership and Investment Program.
In its recent core services review, KPMG suggests CPIP funds be eliminated completely. While that's unlikely, the mayor has said he will consider all options.
Even if support services escape Rob Ford's budget axe, frontline workers say a root cause of panhandling is that Ontarians' welfare cheques barely cover rent in a city as expensive as Toronto. With an average payout of $592 per month, welfare levels are $70 lower than when Bob Rae was premier, and none of the major parties in the upcoming provincial election plans to change that.
"The biggest difficulty is that the funds provided [by Ontario's welfare program] are inadequate for proper housing," says Toby Mullally, a manager at Central Neighbourhood House. "You can't rent a room in this town for $350 a month."
And once the money runs out, even people with homes can end up panhandling.