On a clear, cool Monday evening, a young man stretches across the hood of a car stopped at a red light on Burrard St at Davie.
He is cleaning its windshield with a squeegee. The light changes, the man returns to the sidewalk and the car continues towards the Burrard St Bridge.
Two uniformed Vancouver Police officers appear and quickly approach him. They are responding to a call of aggressive panhandling.
In January 2005, the province of British Columbia enacted the Safe Streets Act, which makes such behaviour illegal. Vancouver-Burrard’s gay MLA, Lorne Mayencourt, first introduced the act, as well as its companion, the Trespass to Property Act, as private member’s bills. Along with aggressive panhandling, the acts also criminalize squatting and have generated lots of critical discussion since their initial reading in 2004.
Some critics feel the acts are punishing, and attempting to legislate away, homeless people. Others think they don’t address the roots of homelessness such as poverty, addiction and mental health problems. The government should be increasing the resources it puts into programs and facilities that help homeless people, Downtown Eastside activist Jim Laydon told CBC Radio One last month.
On this night, the police believe they’ve resolved the situation. They have spoken to the young man and explained that he was panhandling aggressively and needed to stop. They noted that he had been drinking, but was not intoxicated enough to be arrested. Nor was he ticketed under the Safe Streets Act.
For his part, Mayencourt says he’s “pleased” with the legislation. Despite this particular incident, he feels that since the law was passed “the squeegee issue has really died down. The decrease has changed the safety issues for anybody that was in fear of, or troubled by, squeegeeing.
“It’s not stopping the behaviour; it’s modifying the behaviour, which is something that we currently do around seatbelts in our cars, filters on our cigarettes, or needle exchanges,” he explains.
“It’s reducing the kind of negative impact that it has on people that have nothing to do with it. I think that that was something that was misunderstood,” he notes.
“Some of [the squeegee people] have just quit panhandling, and have either the opportunity to get on to welfare, where they have stable income, some stable housing, whatever else, or they’ve found jobs-and there are a lot of jobs right now,” Mayencourt points out.
“I don’t want to do all of them either,” he admits, “but there are a lot of jobs around. I think a lot of people have gone, ‘Well okay, the gig’s up. The party’s over on this one. It’s too much of a hassle. I’ll do something else.'”
Though Mayencourt hastens to add: “Sitting on a corner for eight hours begging is work.”
Another criticism that some observers have levelled against the Safe Streets Act recently is that since so few tickets have been written under it in the past year, it must be a failure.
Inspector Steve Schnitzer, District One Commander of the Vancouver Police Department, has a “complete contrary point of view. We are very pleased with it.
“I don’t view legislation as being a success by the amount of charges that are laid,” he explains. “This was about changing behaviour, and to make panhandling and squeegeeing less aggressive in nature. We’ve achieved that because the police department is receiving far less calls in the last year than we did prior to the legislation.”
By Mayencourt’s tally, 60 individuals have been charged under the act since its introduction. Of these, only one case is going forward to court as a “test case,” he says. So far, no one has been convicted.
“But even without a conviction and a fine paid-and I think some of them are paid-the behaviour changed,” Mayencourt submits. Under the Safe Streets Act, fines range from $86 to $115.
Vince Marino, president of both the West End Coal Harbour Community Police Centre (CPC) and the Davie Village Business Improvement Association (BIA), supports the law.
“The Safe Streets Act to me was another tool to assist the police in specific situations where panhandlers were overstepping,” says Marino, who is gay.
“I’ve never thought [it] was to deal with our homeless or drug situation,” he continues. “To me it was not to solve the social issues of the day. I never saw it that way. I’ve always seen it from a business point of view, as a resident, or from the CPC. It was a tool to assist in specific situations where someone was being belligerent, panhandling, [or] harassing people.”
Mayencourt initiated the legislation because, he says, “people called my office very regularly from all parts of Vancouver, in fact all over the Lower Mainland. [The city] had 22 intersections that were considered dangerous by the Vancouver Police Department for women to be driving alone in. We’re down now to between four and six,” he offers.
“[The squeegee people] tended to be scary because they would be particularly assertive with individuals with an ethnic background, Chinese in particular, and also women,” he notes. “It had been something that had been percolating in this neighbourhood long before I became an MLA, and it was particularly hard on people.”
Mayencourt says he modelled the Safe Streets Act on similar legislation from other cities, as well as a never enacted bylaw from the City of Vancouver. “I looked at a number of jurisdictions to see what they’d done. I went to Ontario’s legislation and read some of the reviews on it. Pretty much, we mirrored what had been put in by the City of Vancouver originally, what New York did, what Toronto did, what Seattle did,” he says.
But the government’s role doesn’t end with the act, Mayencourt continues. He recently launched a “Safe Streets Initiative” to complement the law and help individual street people get access to the resources they need, one by one.
These initiatives have “made a very positive difference for people that are poor, mentally ill and addicted,” he says.
“To date, we have had 89 people [who have] come in off the street, 95 percent of them have been put on welfare and given housing within 24 hours. Eighty of them are still in receipt of income on a monthly basis and 70 are still in the housing placement,” he says.
Back at Davie and Burrard, Jebediah, 23, is a friend of the young man spoken to by the police.
Originally from London, Ontario he has been in Vancouver for the past 12 months. A self-proclaimed “hobo,” he has lived on the street for the past nine years. He rides the rails with his pit bull.
“I don’t stay in one place,” Jebediah states, and mentions that he is leaving for Halifax in a month.
He knows of a “Safe Streets Act” and thinks “it’s a horrible thing.” He has been charged under it several times in Ontario. He is less aware of it in this province.
Marino cannot say whether the streets are any safer today than before the law came into effect.
“I think that the issues that existed a year ago still exist today,” he says. “We’ve got social issues that have not been solved in the sense of there are homeless people, there are mentally ill individuals on the street, there are drug addicted individuals, there are people that are pushing drugs. They are social issues that we need to come to grips with under totally different circumstances.
“We still don’t have, in my mind, the facilities,” he continues. “We have a lot of agencies and governments and the city working to resolve some of these issues, but until we actually have places where people needing homes [can] go-where they need mental treatment centres [or] drug centres-until those things actually come to fruition, I really don’t see the problems being eased in what we see here on our streets today.”
Though the Safe Streets Act has had some challenges in its first year, Mayencourt presents this final thought to any critics or skeptics of the law: “Don’t judge the Act on the number of fines, judge it on the change in behaviour because that was all that [it] was about-changing behaviour.”