Stinging criticism of the way our society deals with the poor and disadvantaged appeared on The Guardian’s opinion pages in recent days. One dealt with the forced eviction of apartment dwellers and small business owners on Grafton Street East to make way for a new Holland College student residence. The other was critical of how we deal with panhandlers in downtown Charlottetown.
Each author was appalled at how the rights of the poor are ignored. One wonders what those authors would say this week after Charlottetown City Council discussed the panhandler issue Monday. Instead of dealing with the cause of the problem, council went on the attack. Now, city fathers are suggesting that panhandlers should be kept away from local churches. Whatever happened to the basic concept of Christian charity? This seems to fly in the face of the basic tenet of most religions — giving alms to the poor.
Churchgoers have the option of giving — or not — outside their place of worship. As do pedestrians on downtown corners. But the city seems anxious to marginalize panhandlers even more. They are already denied, by a nuisance bylaw, of panhandling in the vicinity of ATMs, payphones, public restrooms, transit stops and taxi stands etc.
Churches have always been considered a sanctuary for the oppressed. If one cannot expect charity or a sympathetic ear at a church, what hope have panhandlers at a busy downtown corner?
It was a tourist who launched the latest round of criticism about panhandlers. In a letter to the editor, a Nova Scotia tourist said she was shocked at the number of panhandlers in the Island capital. She cited her case of trying to cross Queen Street when a male panhandler followed her across the street. Someone at city hall took notice because soon after, police were issuing warning tickets to panhandlers and threatening arrest.
The city seems to be ignoring a plea from Downtown Charlottetown Inc. (DCI) for more funding so it can expand its Navigator Street Outreach program. Downtown businesses are funding the project to seek out people on the streets, find out what their needs are and where to lead them to help. It seems to have some success as cases are cited of panhandlers getting jobs, housing and off the street.
Despite these small victories, society has largely failed them. The Guardian’s poverty edition this spring suggested the plight of panhandlers supports the concept of a Basic Income Guarantee, enhanced minimum wage, affordable housing and other social supports.
Bringing attention to this problem may make us uncomfortable but passing a more restrictive bylaw will not solve the problem — it just shifts the location. We have massive transfers of public money from the federal government to this province so Islanders can have equality in programs and services. The province then passes along supports to the city. So don’t be too hard on panhandlers who are just seeking a little help to get off the streets. Instead, they are being threatened with having church doors slammed in their face.