3 min

Panhandling crack-down?

Mayencourt's bill in wrong direction: activists

DOESN'T MAKE ANY SENSE. Randy Atkinson, president of the Davie Village Business Improvement Association, says law enforcement is not the best way forward in dealing with panhandlers on Davie St. Credit: Gareth Kirkby

“It doesn’t make any sense to me,” says the president of the Davie Village Business Improvement Association (BIA).

Randy Atkinson is referring to MLA Lorne Mayencourt’s new panhandling bill, which could soon give police more power to crack-down on street kids.

Panhandling is a complex question and it needs a multi-pronged answer, says Atkinson, who is also a practicing psychologist. Deterrence alone is not the answer; the government needs to put more resources into support services and treatment centres, too.

Jim Deva agrees. “While legislation might be the cheapest way of dealing with this problem, it certainly won’t be the most effective,” says the vice-president of the Davie St Community Policing Centre (CPC), who also sits on the BIA.

Details are still sketchy, but according to the Vancouver Courier, Mayencourt is drafting a private member’s bill to give officers more power to fine and arrest street people for panhandling.

Mayencourt back-pedalled when Xtra West reached him last week.

The bill is far from finalized, he says. He’s still consulting people, including street kids, to determine what everybody needs. “I can’t predict what this thing is going to look like at the end of the day.”

But that hasn’t stopped him from studying Ontario’s Safe Streets Act as a possible model for his own bill. The Ontario act, which drew a lot of heated criticism from anti-poverty activists across Canada when it was introduced in 1999, sets out stiff fines for panhandlers and squeegee kids. It’s $500 for the first offence, $1,000 for the second, and jail time for every subsequent offence.

Deva flinches when he hears about the Ontario bill. “If we’re modelling after [former Ont premier Mike] Harris, I’m very concerned,” he says.

He’s especially worried about the prospect of fining street kids. “I think it’s totally inappropriate. One of the major reasons they’re on the street is they don’t have any money.” What’s fining them going to accomplish?

Atkinson agrees. They’ll just have to panhandle more to raise the money to pay the first fine.

At that rate, it’s only a matter of time before they end up in jail.

Sending street kids to jail will only exacerbate the situation, Deva says. This whole bill is a step in the wrong direction.

Mayencourt says he has to do something because more and more people are saying they feel unsafe walking down the street. “We’re trying to find some sort of balance here,” he says.

Atkinson is not opposed to a little deterrence but stops far short of fining. Visible beat cops simply walking along Davie St might make people feel safer, he suggests. And they could also tackle other problems, such as gay-bashing, while they’re there.

Mayencourt says police need more tools to respond to panhandlers.

Do they really? Deva asks. There are already provisions in the Criminal Code for arresting people who assault or threaten others.

Mayencourt admits that he doesn’t have an answer for that one yet, but repeats that he’s still in the early stages of drafting his bill.

Put the resources into support programs for street youth instead, Deva and Atkinson advise. Counselling services, safe places to sleep at night, job programs, drug treatment facilities-these would all be a step in the right direction, they say.

If the government really wants to make the streets safer, it should take a look at why people are on the streets to begin with, Atkinson says. Street youth who dropped out of school might benefit from skills development programs, for example. Others might need counselling, or help getting clean and staying clean.

“I think we have to deal with our street youth on a one-on-one basis,” Deva says, so that each person gets the help or training or support they need.

Deva and the Davie CPC have already interviewed 10 street youths staying on Davie St to determine who they are, where they come from and what they need. And that’s just the first round. Deva hopes to conduct another 40 interviews in the weeks to come and release the results of the CPC’s study by the end of spring.

It’s just the first step towards truly understanding the panhandling situation, he says. Street kids are “as different and diverse as the rest of us.”

Mayencourt says he’s hoping to meet with some street youth soon. He has already hosted several meetings with business people and street youth service providers to discuss the panhandling situation in Vancouver.

Deva attended a few of those meetings and says they went well. Everyone got a chance to discuss their experiences around panhandling and to talk about their needs. But there was no mention of any private member’s bill, he says.

Mayencourt says he has not yet mentioned the bill at those meetings because he’s still at the consultation stage. Nothing has been finalized, he reiterates.