Panhandling panic

Where is it written that we have to protect shop owners from social realities?

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We’re a polite bunch and would prefer not to be heard speaking ill of each other. But there’s a group of people among us who are emboldened by the thinning of city resources.

Don’t tell me you haven’t noticed the steady increase in their numbers. And while it’s all well and good to humour them now and then, one has to wonder if it hasn’t gone just a bit far.

I’m speaking, of course, of the Malthusians.

Yes, adherents of early-19th-century political economist Thomas Malthus, who feared the poor. Surely I’m not be the only one appalled to hear their orchestrated sob stories, arguing, as always, that the lower classes somehow owe them a living just because they own property.

“They congregate… talking on cellphones, speaking loudly of how much money they’ve made,” resident Janice Solomon said in her deputation to the city’s Executive Committee on May 28. “Some of them have mountain bikes.”

This is precisely – oh, hold on. Re-reading my notes, it seems Solomon was actually speaking about panhandlers. And the fact that so many of these Malthusian types had time to attend a three-hour debate on a new pilot project studying the “effects” of panhandling, and to push (unsuccessfully) for a bylaw banning the activity in the core, makes one wonder what good comes of the money we give them at their places of business. They just argue for more unwarranted assistance from government.

“[People] are saddened or made to feel awkward by the panhandlers in downtown Toronto,” said Jim Aldridge of the Entertainment District Association. “There’s lots of evidence suggesting people are choosing not to come downtown because they don’t like walking five blocks to the parking lot and being asked for money.”

Maybe they could take public transit. Regardless, that is precisely what I mean. If Aldridge wants to run a business, fine. But where is it written that it’s our responsibility to help his patrons ignore economic realities?

To hear others tell it, there’s no social ill that can’t be blamed on panhandlism. A stolen bike, a stolen pint glass, graffiti, muddy bathrooms, violence. “A woman in our neighbourhood feels increasingly uncomfortable walking the streets,” said Gee Chung, president of some ragtag bunch called the Greater Yorkville Residents’ Association. “There is a shabby and dirty man who holds a cap and coffee cup.”

Just one? Really? Look harder. But don’t forget to watch for someone’s boyfriend who holds stock in several major companies and has a sense of entitlement. He, statistically speaking, is far more likely to be brought up on sexual assault charges than Scary Mr. Cap ‘n’ Cup.

Staff, Mayor David Miller and the executive dismissed the scapegoating out of hand, killing Case Ootes’s push for a panhandling ban. As Miller pointed out, all the crimes bemoaned at the meeting are already illegal and committed by people from all walks of life.

The only times the mayor perked up were at mention of unresponsive police frontline officers, it seems, tell people who complain of aggressive panhandling that there’s nothing they can do. On the contrary, stated Miller: the provincial Safe Streets Act provides redress for just that and the mayor seemed to be gathering anecdotes for a conversation with the chief.

But if executive progressives argue that the city shouldn’t resort to social cleansing to make up for social service cuts by the Harris government (as they did), why the concern with the Safe Streets Act, another Harris creation?

As Councillor Joe Mihevc pointed out, it’s not a terribly useful one. He provided a list of tickets given to one street-involved individual (a litany of Safe Streets Act tickets, liquor offences and Highway Traffic Act charges) and pointed out that they had no effect.

The city will soon spend hundreds of thousands of dollars assessing the “needs” of “passive” panhandlers within the bounds of Spadina, Jarvis, Queens Quay and Yorkville for three months starting in July.

Staff will also consult with business associations to determine the “effects” of panhandling and come up with ways of dealing with it that do not involve enforcement. All very nice, but the city did its Street Needs Assessment just last year. Do we need another study?

If so, I’ve a suggestion. Ask Officers J. Bobbili and E. Freeman – the names that appear most often on Mihevc’s list – how much time they spend giving tickets to people who can’t afford to pay them. In fact, ask every officer. Then calculate how many full-time positions that time equals. Then cut that many positions and put the money that would have gone to salaries into wealth redistribution programs.

After years of provincial neglect, creativity is needed. And this new consultative phase could serve as a catalyst: having assessed the needs of those reduced to begging, the city could inform people of the root causes and potential solutions. Staff could not only educate a whole lot of spoiled brats, but get them to divert their whining at city committees to the lobbying of provincial ministers for more social service cash.

But all that’s on the table right now is an education program on how people can divert their generosity from panhandlers to charity and social programs. Well meaning though it may be, it still smacks of puritanism – and sends the wrong message to the shrill.

“People need to be made aware that when they give to panhandlers,” said business owner Chris Ross, “it often goes toward drugs and alcohol.”

I wanted to ask him how many kinds of alcohol his patrons consume on an average night, but I don’t talk to the Malthusians any more. It just encourages them.

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