UPDATE: City council voted Tuesday to forward the panhandling letter to the Co-ordinated Enforcement Task Force.
By MEL ROTHENBURGER
NEWS/ CITY — If panhandling laws keep trending the way they have been, Kamloops might soon declare itself a panhandling-free zone. That would be just fine with some, not so much with others.
Panhandling is currently against the law within 10 metres of a bank, credit union or trust company, ATM, bus stop, bus shelter, church, movie theatre, liquor-store entrance, vehicles stopped in traffic, vehicles that are parked, or vehicles being unloaded.
Panhandling isn’t allowed at all from sunset to sunrise.
These limitations came about largely at the behest of the downtown business community but with the general agreement of the public. Now, the Chamber of Commerce wants panhandling banned from the area of parking kiosks, and intends to push for it this year.
The idea was actually broached last summer when Kamloops Central BIA general manager Gay Pooler told a meeting of the business group that the new parking kiosks provide panhandlers with a “captive audience.”
It also came up last year at a meeting of the Coordinated Enforcement Task Force — a group of business representatives, City managers, council members and social agencies.
Whether panhandling is a legal issue or a social issue, and whether it’s truly a major issue downtown, is grist for a good discussion over a coffee on Victoria Street, but there’s no question that downtown shoppers would welcome some relief.
Panhandling is now concentrated in the 200 and 300 blocks of Victoria Street. A kiosk on the south side of the 200 block happens to be convenient to a nearby street bench, which one particular panhandler stakes out on a regular basis.
“Is there any way you could spare some change?” she asks, sometimes adding that she needs just a little help to make it to welfare day.
And this is where we get into the nuances of parking-kiosk panhandling. This particular panhandler doesn’t generally hit up people who are in line at the kiosk itself, at least not that I’ve seen. However, she does take advantage of its proximity.
So, presumably, a ban on parking-kiosk panhandling would have to extend the same 10 metres from each kiosk designated for other banned locations. There are 90 parking kiosks in the downtown area — combined with the other banned locations, that becomes a pretty wide swath.
Concerns about panhandling go back many years and don’t represent the entire issue when it comes to deterring shoppers. Funny Pages Collectables owner Dave Carmichael put out a call to other downtown businesses three years ago to demand action on controling drunks, dogs and panhandlers on the street.
“When you work downtown and you’re stepping over bodies, you’re stepping around aggressive panhandlers and dogs, there’s a problem,” he said.
Another favourite hangout for street people is the Civic Building at Fifth and Victoria. They congregate in the plaza and inside to use the washrooms and sit a spell. That building is protected with private security to keep an eye on them but, clearly, physical spaces have much to do with where they hang out.
Several years ago, some of the decorative rocks — which were big enough to sit on — were removed from Victoria Street because they’d become popular roosting areas. And just last summer, the gazebo in Gaglardi Square was knocked down and removed because it was used by street people as a shelter.
Storefront patios on Victoria Street have become one of those attractants, since anyone having their lunch in one of them is a natural target for panhandling.
When tour buses and the Rocky Mountaineer deposit their travellers in Kamloops for an evening stroll of Victoria Street, panhandlers and other street people are there to greet them.
Over the winter, panhandling hasn’t been a major issue but as spring and summer come on the population is going to increase. They’ll lay on the street with a blanket and a dog, and ask for money. Along with the panhandlers will come the buskers, ranging from legitimate musicians to anybody with a ten-dollar guitar, a couple of chords and a few words to a song. The so-called “bag ladies” will push their shopping carts around with their possessions. And, of course, they’ll be in the parks.
There will be occasional issues with “aggressive” rather than “passive” panhandling, when panhandlers get persistent, use foul or threatening language, or even become physical, though the latter is rare.
These are people with problems — they’re broke, can’t or won’t work, may have had addiction issues and some aren’t entirely stable. The system isn’t able to solve their problems and they aren’t going to go away. The question is, how to establish a balance between tolerance/ help, and a friendly, safe, comfortable downtown.
Tuesday, City council will decide how to respond to a letter from resident James Fraser supporting tougher restrictions on panhandling and pointing out the existence of the Safe Streets Act, which the City is well acquainted with.
Under the Safe Streets Act, it’s illegal to solicit near the same sorts of places outlined in the City’s bylaw, but includes pay phones, public washrooms and taxi stops. And now, parking kiosks?
“The panhandlers are hanging around the pay stations a lot and making a very uncomfortable environment for the people who are coming,” Brant Hasanen, the chamber’s policy director, told Kamloops This Week. “They have enough trouble with those pay stations as it is, let alone someone asking them for some spare change.”
Such laws may be popular with the business community and its customers, but not with everybody. The B.C. Mental Health and Addictions Service, an agency of the provincial Health Services Authority located in Vancouver, thinks they’re shameful.
“These restrictions blatantly discriminate against poor, homeless, mentally ill and addicted people, and serve only to marginalize and render invisible an already marginalized population,” wrote Cynthia Row of the organization. “It is also exceedingly hypocritical, and as citizens of a ‘progressive’ city, we ought to be ashamed.”
She compared panhandling to coming out of a SkyTrain Station and being accosted by “bright-vested representatives” of various tabloid publications.
“These tabloid distributors are annoying and aggressive, and as uncomfortable to encounter as any disheveled panhandler.”
Charity representatives who stand outside coffee shops aren’t on her favourites list either. “The message is clear: corporate panhandling is acceptable and is welcomed in our city, while begging by the disenfranchised is to be discouraged.”
Anti-panhandling laws have been successfully challenged in some places if the panhandling isn’t aggressive. Poverty and homelessness, many say, can’t be cured with anti-panhandling laws. It may be a nuisance, they say, but it’s not a threat.
The City’s panhandling bylaw was adopted in 2003. A lot of people would welcome an update. But in doing so, are we making the street safer (or at least, increasing the perception of safety), or are we moving toward total exclusion of panhandling downtown and doing more harm than good?