Some Davie Street business owners say they’re sick of cleaning up feces left by panhandlers and that their customers-especially seniors-are afraid of the street people. And then there’s the aesthetic issue.
On the other hand, irate readers have noted that the appearance of panhandlers on our streets is a symptom of a much deeper economic problem in our province. And that we must never forget we are dealing with real people, with real issues, real emotions, experiencing real pain at having to live on the streets.
At first blush these perspectives may seem irreconcilable. I don’t think they are, though. A community of goodwill-and one that has itself experienced stereotyping and harsh social attitudes as ours has-should be able to address this issue. And we’ve got a vested interest as a community in doing so-the 1994 McCreary Centre study found that 27 percent of Vancouver’s female street youth identify as bisexual or lesbian and 17 percent of males identify as bisexual or gay.
This is our “problem” to solve.
The Davie Street Community Policing Centre is interviewing 50 street youth to find out who they are, where they’re from, where they want to go and how the community can help them. In taking this approach, the CPC is tacitly acknowledging that genuine solutions must go far beyond the traditional police harassment of panhandlers.
Already, the first 10 or so interviews have found that drugs are not a major part of the lives of these youth. This contradicts police claims that some 80 percent of street youth are wired on crystal meth. This is important, because it’s a lot easier to help people help themselves if they’re not already wired to hard drugs.
“These are not throw-away people,” says Jim Deva, who sits on the boards of both the Davie St CPC and the Davie Village Business Improvement Association (BIA). “There’s a real opportunity to rescue these kids off our streets.”
But how do we do that?
Clearly, we need to get long-term psychiatric help for the very rare violent street person. Police can help by firmly insisting that the panhandlers not hassle pedestrians. And they can help refer panhandlers to agencies.
But aggressive policing is not the answer to this social problem any more than it is the answer to drug addiction or prostitution. We don’t need new provincial legislation making it easier to scoop people off the street. Jail is always the most expensive option-economically and in terms of wasted lives. We need provincial and federal programs that help create opportunities for the panhandlers. For example, those street youth who have not finished high school should get provincial welfare and decent housing on condition that they complete school.
How about those who have finished school or want to work? We could use more programs like those run by Gordon Neighbourhood House. They take a dozen youth at a time, polish them up, teach them life and employment skills, and help them enter the workforce. They try to find them somewhere to live, address drug and alcohol problems and get them identification papers. It’s a hand up, not a handout. Let’s expand the spaces way beyond the current dozen or so.
The provincial and federal governments-attention Lorne Mayencourt and Hedy Fry-should share the cost of schooling, housing and training youth. And de-emphasize policing.
Youth run away from home for a lot of reasons these days: abusive parents, bashing at school, lack of opportunity in their rural BC community, high unemployment in their eastern province. As federal and provincial social programs have been slashed in the past decade, these youth have fewer and fewer options. Few people live on the street because it’s their first choice. But, if we get to them in time, before the drug dealers and pimps, we can help them become productive members of our community.
The number of young panhandlers on Davie has shot up in recent months. Why? The CPC survey has uncovered something interesting: these youth feel safer in the gay neighbourhood than they do elsewhere.
“Maybe that’s a real compliment,” says Deva. “Maybe we have more humanity on Davie Street. But as merchants and citizens, we’ve got to lobby government to help them, not treat them as garbage.”
Precisely. We must all work together on this, not write them off.
Gareth Kirkby is Managing Editor for Xtra.