Discriminatory and Hypocritical
Reprinted from "Criminal Justice" issue of Visions Journal, 2005, 2 (8), pp. 22-23
Begging for money on the street, otherwise known as panhandling, is an area of increasing vilificaiton in Vancouver, and is part of the focus of the Street Crime Working Group.1 The practice of society’s second-oldest profession has been increasingly restricted, and some politicians and downtown merchants are calling for an outright ban.
Laws already exist to deal with aggressive panhandling and harassment on our streets. In April 1998 Vancouver city council unanimously passed a by-law to regulate and control panhandling.2 It was subsequently repealed, but restrictions to prevent “obstructive solicitation” were incorporated in the City’s Street and Traffic By-law in June 2004.3 This was further reinforced by the provincial Safe Streets Act, which came into effect in January 2005.4 Under the Safe Streets Act, it is illegal to panhandle or solicit within a certain proximity to anyone using bank machines, pay phones or public washrooms; anyone at a bus or taxi stop or on public transit and anyone in a stopped car or getting in or out of a parked car.5
These restrictions blatantly discriminate against poor, homeless, mentally ill and addicted people, and serve only to marginalize and render invisible an already marginalized population. It is also exceedingly hypocritical, and as citizens of a ‘progressive’ city, we ought to be ashamed.
Glaring evidence of this hypocrisy can be found at any downtown SkyTrain Station (places where panhandling is aggressively discouraged by authorities). One just has to exit the Granville Street station, or walk down the stairs at the Main Street/Science World station to know what I’m talking about. You cannot walk for three blocks in any direction after emerging form the Granville SkyTrain stop without being accosted on every corner by bright-vested representatives of 24-Hours or Metro tabloid publications. These tabloid distributors are annoying and aggressive, and as uncomfortable to encounter as any disheveled panhandler. They do not stand unobtrusively to the side as you try to make your way; they stand in the middle of the sidewalk at intersections, or three feet from the bottom of SkyTrain stairs, forcing pedestrians to walk around them. As you attempt to avoid them, an eager arm thrusts forward a copy of whatever tabloid they are promoting, likewise forcing all passerby to engage in an act of acceptance or refusal of their offerings—a clever co-opting of the time-honoured tradition of panhandling.
I remember a down-and-out man who used to peddle copies of a street paper outside of the Granville Street station. He would politely stand to the side of the exit doors and say “hello” as you passed, hoping to sell a paper or take a donation. He is no longer there, having been supplanted by an army of tabloid employees—though to be fair, the tabloid distributors are just trying to make a living themselves, and are engaged in ambush marketing techniques at the direction of their employers.
I am also regularly accosted in front of my local socially progressive bank, coffee shop and retailer—not by panhandlers, but by ‘sanctioned’ solicitors for a variety of charitable organizations (this is allowed if the institution gives the charity organization permission to solicit in front of their doors). The most annoying incidents of street solicitation I experience are not from street people, but from the representatives of these ‘legitimate’ organizations. On one occasion, I declined an invitation to make a contribution from an organization rep who was stationed in front of a bank. The vendor proceeded to heckle me as I walked away, capping off her harassment with a familiar and sarcastic comment: “Have a nice day!” I had to cross the street to avoid walking in front of the bank for the rest of the day. I am rarely intimidated or inconvenienced in this way by local panhandlers.
The message is clear: corporate panhandling is acceptable and is welcomed in our city, while begging by the disenfranchised is to be discouraged. It is acceptable for a politician to stop me in the street and ask for my vote, an evangelist for my devotion, a tabloid for my attention, a charitable organization for my money and lost tourist for directions. But it is becoming increasingly unacceptable for a mentally ill, addicted or hungry person on the street to ask me for anything. In other words, it is acceptable to be harassed for global and organized group causes, but not for local and personal ones.
The discrimination and hypocrisy are obvious, and we ought to think of the consequences of legislating against panhandling. Such legislation would be a misguided and short-sighted approach to the problems of poverty, illness and addiction in our society.
About the author
Cynthia is Editorial Assistant for Visions
The Street Crime Working Group is mandated to develop new criminal justice responses to street crime and disorderly behaviour in Vancouver. For more information see www.bcjusticereview.org/working_groups/street_crime/street_crime.asp.
City of Vancouver. (1998, April). Panhandling By-law No. 7885. Retrieved online February 8, 2006, at www.city.vancouver.bc.ca/bylaws/15254v2.pdf.
City of Vancouver. (2004, June). Street and Traffic By-law (2849), Section 70A. Retrieved online February 20, 2006, at http://vancouver.ca/bylaws/11188v17.pdf.
British Columbia Safe Streets Act, SBC 2004, c. 75. Retrieved online February 20, 2006, from www.legis.gov.bc.ca/37th5th/3rd_read/gov71-3.htm.
BC Public Interest Advocacy Centre, BC Civil Liberties Association & Legal Services Society of BC. (2005, October). Safe Streets Act. Brochure retrieved online February 18, 2006, at www.bcpiac.com/pub/currInterest/SafeStreetsActbrochure.pdf.