Stop blam­ing the poor

Tell MPs, MLAs that we need af­ford­able housing, food se­cu­rity, ad­dic­tion and coun­selling ser­vices

The Guardian (Charlottetown) - - OPINION - BY JUSTIN SIMARD Justin Simard of Belle River is a so­cial ac­tivist, pro­fes­sional mu­si­cian, voice in­struc­tor and com­mu­ni­ca­tions spe­cial­ist

I am writ­ing here out of de­spair, an­guish and a mount­ing sense of moral ou­trage. In re­cent weeks there have been a num­ber of sto­ries in dif­fer­ent me­dia out­lets about the prob­lem of “ag­gres­sive panhandlers” in Char­lot­te­town who have caused a flurry of so­cial me­dia com­men­tary.

While there has been a fair amount of rea­son­able, com­pas­sion­ate re­sponses, there have also been a num­ber of egre­gious and un­for­giv­ably ig­no­rant com­ments. It is some of these com­ments I would like to ad­dress.

“Are there no prisons? … and the Union work­houses. Are they still in op­er­a­tion? Those who are badly off must go there … If they would rather die, they had bet­ter do it, and de­crease the sur­plus pop­u­la­tion.” - Ebenezer Scrooge

‘For­eign work­ers are keep­ing Is­lan­ders from find­ing work’

Hav­ing for­eign work­ers come in and hav­ing panhandlers are two en­tirely sep­a­rate is­sues. There is no ev­i­dence to cor­re­late one to the other. For­eign work­ers are brought in to fill jobs that Is­lan­ders won’t do.

‘It’s a scam’

Sev­eral dif­fer­ent com­menters al­luded to the con­cept that the panhandlers in Char­lot­te­town are op­er­at­ing as some sort of a ring, with trans­porta­tion to change shifts, and that some even have shared liv­ing ac­com­mo­da­tions. Are we an­gry that the peo­ple forced to beg for money have man­aged to scrape to­gether enough to get a roof over their heads? Do they have to live on the street to qual­ify for our gen­eros­ity? Are we pass­ing judg­ment on how these peo­ple col­lab­o­rate to deal with poverty, when our so­ci­ety has clearly failed to do so?

‘It’s a choice’

Ref­er­ence has been made to there be­ing jobs out there if they wanted them. One com­menter on Face­book al­luded to a job be­ing of­fered to a pan­han­dler, who al­legedly de­clined, say­ing the job was be­neath them. To some peo­ple, I ad­mit, it must look like a choice. To see an able-bod­ied per­son choos­ing to beg in­stead of work? Un­for­giv­able. How­ever, there are many fac­tors, which can pre­clude some­one who seems able bod­ied from do­ing cer­tain types of jobs, such as men­tal ill­ness, or in­jury.

‘I won’t sup­port some­one’s ad­dic­tion’

Why does drug ad­dic­tion hap­pen? Does it hap­pen be­cause the per­son is bad? That their par­ents failed at rais­ing them? Or, as is more of­ten the case, are they self med­i­cat­ing a men­tal ill­ness, or to cope with past trauma or abuse?

Peo­ple don’t choose to be sex­u­ally, phys­i­cally or emo­tion­ally abused.

No one chooses to have a men­tal ill­ness.

We are for­tu­nate that many of us get the help we need, when we need it, but there are few on the mar­gins who do not, and that is not their fault.

If panhandlers truly bother you, stop com­plain­ing and take ac­tion.

If we’re wor­ried that our panhandlers are mak­ing us look bad we must ad­dress the cause, not the symp­tom.

Call your MLA and your MP. Tell them that it is time for us to wake up and to change our so­cial triage; that we’ve been ad­dress­ing headaches while leav­ing peo­ple dy­ing in the wait­ing room, and get­ting mad at them for do­ing it pub­licly. Tell them we need af­ford­able housing, food se­cu­rity, ad­dic­tion and coun­selling ser­vices. We need to stop blam­ing and sham­ing the poor and the des­ti­tute. We need to help them with more than just guilt al­le­vi­at­ing pocket change.

DAVE STEWART/GUARDIAN FILE PHOTO

Jen Ni­chol­son, right, who leads Char­lot­te­town’s Nav­i­ga­tor Street Out­reach pro­gram, has a con­ver­sa­tion with Lisa Whalen, some­one she be­friended this spring. Ni­chol­son spends time try­ing to help panhandlers and talk­ing to oth­ers, in­clud­ing those at the soup kitchen.

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