Panhandlers, homeless and crime in Toronto

Media coverage of a recent stabbing death by a group of youths has brought the issue of panhandling in Toronto to the fore, including calls for banning the activity altogether. There are already laws against ‘aggressive pan-handling’. Last time I looked, stabbing someone was also illegal.

I’m not in favour of panhandling by any means. I never give to beggars, and I’ve chided the odd friend I’ve been with who has given to them. I really do believe that giving only makes the problem worse. At the same time, I do not think that banning it altogether would be at all effective.

Why? First off, ‘aggressive’ panhandling is already illegal. It just isn’t enforced enough to deter the activity. Just because there is a law on the books doesn’t mean the behaviour will stop. Secondly, any attempt to curtail the ‘right’ to panhandling will, I guarantee, be met with fierce opposition, and most likely a couple of lawsuits. There’s a substantial amount of case law that protects begging under ‘free speech’. It’s just not worth the effort to try to introduce, and without the assured backing of the courts, not worth it for the police to make a serious attempt to enforce.

There is, however, a very serious and worsening problem with panhandling and homelessness in Toronto. In five years, my life hasn’t changed that much. I’ve worked at the same job, hung around the same areas, lived in the same vicinity. For five years I’ve walked the same streets nearly every day, and see many people come and go along with a few hard-core regulars that my husband has seen around since he was in high school in the late 80s.

There seems to be a lot more panhandlers this year than ever before. Though oddly, I pass by fewer people sleeping outside on the streets than I did last summer. The city of Toronto recently launched a ‘study’ of panhandlers in the downtown area, though the part of Queen Street where the stabbing occurred falls outside the area.

I’d like to see the results of the study. But most of all, I’d be interested in knowing: where do they all come from? The most curious thing about the most recent high-profile crime is that three of the four were from the US. If it turns out that the majority on the streets of Toronto are not actually from Toronto it would certainly bolster Mayor Miller’s case for uploading responsibility for social services back onto the province. Or even the feds – doesn’t immigration fall under their domain? Why should the Toronto taxpayer be expected to fund a group lazy kids from California?

I’m acquainted with one guy who’s a panhandler, though I don’t see him much any more. In some aspects, he fits the stereotypical beggar quite well, in other aspects, he does not. He does have a place to live, though it’s in a lousy part of town. He has mental health issues, though he is not an alcoholic or a drug addict. He’s had people offer him work and has declined. But he really is a ‘lost soul’; I can’t see him being able to function in any sort of workplace environment beyond the most menial sort of labour. And he doesn’t have the health that that sort of labour requires. He most likely doesn’t eat enough. Certainly not anything nutritious. He pans for various reasons – sometimes out of necessity, though it also seems to be the only way he knows how to get extra money. He mostly supports himself on welfare, though most people forget that with a diagnosis of mental illness one qualifies for ‘disability’, which has more entitlements than regular welfare does. It’s not an amount I’d ever want to live on though.

The biggest problem with homelessness and with panhandling is that each issue is far from simple. There is no single cause of either, and therefore, no single solution. Each person who ends up on the streets, either to sleep or to beg for change is there for a different reason. Some are old, and haggard. Pretty much unemployable. Some are serious alcoholics. Some are obnoxious and have alienated all around them, while others are beaten down and forgotten by everyone. Some people just need some guidance that no one has provided them, others need chronic support that in the long run is likely cheaper for society to pay for than not, and all that some probably need a swift kick in the ass.

The second biggest problem is that so many people – and so many policy makers, it seems, refuse to acknowledge the complexity and instead call for simpler and therefore ultimately ineffective solutions.

The ‘right’ seem to think that each person is entirely responsible for their destiny and tolerate no excuses. But they don’t tend to have grown up poor, or fully understand how profound and resistant to change even psychological barriers are. There’s this ‘I got mine’ mentality that seems to penetrate through every facet of being. They tend to forget the ways in which the average taxpayer supports their quality of life. Corporate welfare is ignored or played down. Or it’s ‘good for the economy’.

Those on the ‘left’ refuse to admit that some people are fully deserved of their lot. Some people really are lazy, irresponsible and selfish, and will game the system for whatever they can. There are limited resources, or at least limits to the voters’ and the taxpayers’ patience. There’s plenty of money to go around if you add up all the funds and revenue from the various social service agencies and charities and such. A lot of it is miss-spent. Where does all the money go that the churches collect? Or the United Way for that matter? Why do temporary shelters cost half millions of dollars to run each year? How do you really get people off the drugs so that they can function – and do they want to? If people flock from all over Canada and end up on Toronto streets, what entitles them to be subsidized by the Toronto taxpayer?  Why not just stick them on a bus back to their home town?

Until these sorts of questions are answered – honestly – there will continue to be homeless and panhandlers in Toronto. Then there will be the rare, high profile crime that brings those issues to national attention again, along with more cries of banning this or that, or for funding this or that. And then a few weeks will pass, then months, and some other item in the news will distract people and on it goes.

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