Stronger bylaw will not fix panhandling
Province created the problem, now city stuck with the cost
City council approved changes to Saskatoon’s panhandling bylaw recently, banning the practice near theatres and around people using parking pay stations.
The result of the revised bylaw? It won’t change a thing. When you’re a panhandler, you don’t have anything to lose. You are doing this because you don’t have other options. Fines aren’t a deterrent because how are they going to collect? A weekend in jail may even be an upgrade.
Other buffer zones haven’t worked. Take a walk past some of the liquor stores, which have long had a buffer in place. People are panhandling at the doors. If you don’t have the inclination or the staff to enforce it, what good does a bylaw do?
The problem for city council is city policies aren’t the cause of the problem, nor does council have the tools to solve the issue. All councillors can do is properly space out the chairs on the deck of the Titanic.
Panhandling is a problem and I don’t want to say it isn’t. Being harassed for money when walking downtown is unpleasant for a lot of people, especially for us introverts, who like to avoid talking with people as much as possible. No wonder The Partnership wants it to end. The problem is this issue is created by another level of government.
People are panhandling because they don’t have money and need something desperately. Studies have shown that a need for food, tobacco and alcohol is a large driving factor.
For others, it’s because they may be on social assistance but something has gone wrong and the Ministry of Social Services has refused them emergency assistance. Yes, you can survive on Social Services funding, but as numerous studies have shown, in order to do it you need to have certain core competencies that come with a middle class upbringing. Introduce addictions, mental or physical health problems or just bad luck into the equation, and all of a sudden survival is almost impossible.
Accessing those services can also mean your overage is clawed back on your next cheque, which means your razor-thin margin no longer exists. Then you’re hoping your hamper from the Saskatoon food bank is abnormally large or you can get some extras from the soup kitchens just for food.
Social Services has had a long practice of putting as many people as possible into the Transitional Employment Assistance (TEA) program rather than the traditional social assistance program. A cynic would suggest they do this so they can tell people the number of people on social assistance is dropping. Even if that isn’t the case, fewer emergency programs and resources are available to people on the TEA.
I have written before about how some turn to prostitution or drugs as a way to get by and just to survive. Compared to those choices, panhandling is by far the lesser evil.
The problem isn’t the panhandlers. They are just a symptom of failed provincial and federal policies around social services and people on pensions. When you give people enough money to just barely survive at subsistence levels, panhandling happens.
Of course, whatever taxpayer money is saved at the provincial level is spent at the municipal level because now you have to pay more for policing as well as court and jail costs for picking up people for unpaid panhandling tickets. Add to that the money the city spends on Community Support Officers.
If the business improvement districts are correct, we can also add the loss of revenue from downtown businesses because people don’t like shopping in that environment.
The province has offloaded the problem of panhandling and street activity to the cities, which have limited resources and jurisdiction over the issue but are now stuck with the costs. It’s not good policy or governance by the province, but rather a cheap accounting and political trick that has real financial and human costs.
Panhandling won’t stop with buffer zones. It will stop by helping people out of crisis. Sadly, that is a provincial responsibility it doesn’t take very seriously. Until that changes, the city will be stuck with a problem it lacks the tools to solve.