ROTHENBURGER – Go hard on graffiti vandals, be soft with panhandlers

(Image: ArmchairMayor file photo)

WHEN WE’RE making laws, we should think about the consequences and roots of illegal acts before we get all sanctimonious.

Laws are created to control behavior, and some behavior is worse than others. For example, I would put graffiti way ahead of panhandling on the list of bad social behavior.

These are two things that happen each and every day on the streets of our towns and cities, though one is done in back alleys and other convenient places, and the other is practiced out on our sidewalks and — as an reader pointed out this week — on our medians.

Neither is on the scale of robbery, murder or even fraud, but they both need to be controlled. The question is how and to what degree.

Laws are mostly reactive. When people complain about something enough, politicians enact laws, and our police and courts try to enforce them.

Graffiti is an act of vandalism that uglifies the urban landscape, devalues property and costs the public a lot of money in prevention, enforcement and clean-up.

Panhandling is mostly annoying, though in its more aggressive forms can become a public safety issue. It’s really only an economic issue when it deters people from shopping in a particular area.

Neither is much enforced. In my view, graffiti is a far more serious transgression. It’s a deliberately illegal act in that flouting the law is a fundamental part of the culture, and spreads like a cancer through a community if not reined in. Kamloops has taken a pro-active role in this for the past 17 years.

Panhandling is an even bigger challenge to manage. It has become part of the downtown shopping experience. Trying to make a living by asking strangers for money is not generally illegal in Kamloops. As long as we stay at least 10 metres away from ATMs, liquor stores and so on, you and I could stand on the sidewalk with hat in hand and legally ask passers-by for “spare change” if we wanted to.

The traditional advice, when asked for a contribution, is to ignore it or to say no thanks and keep walking. Downtown Kamloops panhandlers are not, for the most part, aggressive. Most, in fact, are polite. Nothing to fear there.

My inclination then, is not to get too agitated about trying to ban them, fine them or load them on buses and drive them down to Kelowna.

The problem people are the drug dealers, bank robbers (way too many of them), purse snatchers (as an Australian tourist unfortunately found out on Lansdowne Street on Thursday night), and shouters and screamers who make life miserable for everybody else. Deal with those people.

The blog reader, however, raised another very important nuance to the panhandling issue. His concern is with those who sit themselves down on the medians of major thoroughfares — in this case, Columbia and Summit.

The letter raised a lively response with much advice on what to do about it.

If they’re sitting there with little hand-written signs that claim they’re trying to get from A to B and could you please help out, they’re relatively harmless. Rarely will they actively approach you at a red light and blatantly ask for money but it can happen, and if you’re sitting in your car it’s unnerving.

(And we all know about squeegee guys, but I’m not aware of any of them being around recently.)

My reader, however, points out that the same guy keeps showing up at the same spot near Columbia and Summit, and the police keep moving him out, after which he shows up again.

There’s a safety issue when it comes to soliciting in traffic, so the concern is legitimate. But it’s hard to solve. Langley has signs on medians pointing out that panhandling in traffic is illegal and dangerous. I doubt it’s any more effective than the move-‘em-out Kamloops method.

Some places have actually tried to require panhandlers to get permits. Others, including Kamloops, have reduced the number of comfortable places to sit in the downtown core.

Here’s the thing, though. The way I see it, graffiti vandals are in it for the fun. I doubt many panhandlers are. To most, it’s degrading. They need to be treated as people, not simply a problem. The trick is to sort out the scammers from the ones who genuinely need a hand or hand-out.

Hit graffiti hard. Fine the vandals bigtime when they’re caught. But panhandling isn’t about giving society the finger. It can’t be solved with tougher laws.

Mel Rothenburger is a former mayor of Kamloops, former school board chair, former editor of The Kamloops Daily News, and a current director on the Thompson-Nicola Regional District board. He was awarded the Jack Webster Foundation’s lifetime achievement award in 2011. His editorials are published regularly on CFJC Today and he appears Wednesdays on the CFJC-TV evening news with his Armchair Mayor commentary. Contact him at

About Mel Rothenburger (6121 Articles) is a forum about Kamloops and the world. It has more than one million views. Mel Rothenburger is the former Editor of The Daily News in Kamloops, B.C. (retiring in 2012), and past mayor of Kamloops (1999-2005). At he is the publisher, editor, news editor, city editor, reporter, webmaster, and just about anything else you can think of. He is grateful for the contributions of several local columnists. This blog doesn't require a subscription but gratefully accepts donations to help defray costs.

8 Comments on ROTHENBURGER – Go hard on graffiti vandals, be soft with panhandlers

  1. Once the graffiti and panhandling problems are under control, can we please go after the pigs that litter on the roads and sidewalks. People that throw snack bags, coffee cups,cans and bottles, etc on the sides of roads are ignorant and lazy. Many times the culprits are not who you might think they are. I once followed a car where the passenger had tossed a snack bag out the window. Turned out to be two middle aged, middle-class ladies. I was shocked.
    By the way, a partial solution to the graffiti problem is right in the instructions on the paint cans. “Surface to be painted must be free from dirt, wax and oil” Apply a wax film to surfaces prone to graffiti attacks, and the paint wouldn’t stick.

  2. I have had a couple of opportunities in the past to call Bylaws about graffiti “artists” in action…please leave a message!
    It is like when I call police to report road vandals…difficult thing to do.
    It is only through my pestilent persistence I keep doing it…because they (the police) do give me the impression they don’t want to be bothered.

  3. Steve Madley // September 9, 2017 at 9:45 AM // Reply

    What are you on about? Maybe you could travel a little bit and see some of the cities where graffiti has been embraced and used to enhance local assets instead of destroying them. You’re gonna go mad over a little paint because you don’t like how it looks and promote police enforcement instead of actually fixing the issue? Good thing you’re a former mayor… You have no clue.

    • What do you mean by “…actually fixing the issue?” I though you said to embrace it.
      But don’t get even madder Steve…just asking…

      • Steve Madley // September 10, 2017 at 8:00 AM //

        I don’t see anyone being mad? Are you okay? Simple take a few minutes and take a walk if this is getting you worked up. It might help you understand the comment better as well, I fail to see what’s difficult to understand.

        Good day

      • Steve Madley // September 10, 2017 at 8:30 AM //

        So in case your town literally has never seen legal graffiti before:

        This concept has been extended where young people who would usually illegally tag simply to have an area to work in, not necessarily to say F U to society, are now being put to good use making city infrastructure look better, especially infrastructure that is costly and not necessarily useful to paint otherwise (from an economic perspective), like bridges, large building facades, etc. Now that is embracing.

        I didn’t mean they should watch illegal taggers and give ’em cookies. I hope this calms your feelings and answers your questions.

        Good day,

      • Mel Rothenburger // September 10, 2017 at 8:50 AM //

        The examples you show are not graffiti. Rather, they are murals, of which Kamloops also has several, though not on so grand a scale. Such murals can be a beautiful addition and also reflect the history and culture of a town. But take a look at the back of Memorial Arena. Though that graffiti-art mural has been allowed to greatly deteriorate over the years, it was an attempt to encourage graffiti artists/ vandals to channel their talents to better purpose and to reduce tagging. It failed. The big wall was painted, and the tagging continued unabated elsewhere. On the other hand, in the back alleys, the use of murals has reduced tagging there, though not eliminated it.

      • As Mel already mentioned murals and graffiti are not one in the same. Murals are created by artists, graffiti are created by mad people.

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