Focus on aggressive panhandlers overlooks bigger issue
Following a number of violent incidents involving panhandlers, many people are calling for tougher laws to address the apparent scourge of aggressive panhandling.
Talk about treating the symptom over the cause.
While two recent incidents are alarming -- one in which an elderly Vancouver man was mugged after giving money to a panhandler on a fifth consecutive day, and another in which a pack of panhandlers mobbed a Toronto man, stabbing him to death -- one can easily mistake what the issue at stake is: whether or not aggressive panhandlers should be targeted by tougher laws, or whether these individuals should have to be panhandling in the first place.
First, however, a caveat: it is true that not all panhandlers are made equal. Among the many panhandlers who are legitimately homeless and unable to otherwise fend for themselves, there are plenty of able-bodied panhandlers who resort to panhandling because they do not want to work. They have their reasons, from base laziness, to some who subscribe to a set of counter-cultural beliefs that essentially forbid them from working, paying taxes, and supporting "the system".
For most panhandlers, however, the issue is very different. They are forced to panhandle because they are homeless, and for a variety of reasons. Mental illness, for example, accounts for between 20 and 25% of all single homeless adults. Drug addiction and alcoholism can be identified in 65-85% of single homeless adults. In Canada, in particular, aboriginal people are more likely to be homeless.
To describe these people as "victims of the system" would clearly be passe. Many of them are homeless because of bad choices that they themselves made. However, it is obvious that once they become homeless, society doesn't care for them very well.
Many people regard panhandlers as a "social nuisance", and demand tougher laws to regulate their behaviour, including loitering laws to prevent them from hanging out on the street.
Unfortunately for the homeless people in question, they have no where else to go. In many Canadian cities, there is a shortage of available shelter space.
If homelessness were merely a private problem, that would be one thing. Yet the public inconveniences (as minor as they may be) caused by the homeless veer directly into the realm of the public problem. While relying on philantropy to help homeless people may seem like a convenient solution, there is only so much the private good can do in addressing a public problem.
A renewed commitment to mental health facilities alone could cut the ranks of Canada's homeless by as much as the aforementioned 20-25%. While this directly contradicts the principle of the "new institutionalism" (the idea that the mentally ill are best treated while living among the public, rather than in closed facilities), it's really only contradicting something that hasn't fully worked. Even if Canada's mentally ill homeless were only offered optional instutionalization, at least that's more choice than they have now.
For the rest of Canada's homeless, more shelter space is necessary, and not just during times of inclement weather. Searching for a job tends to require a fixed address, and ability to get in contact with prospective employers. A homeless shelter may not be the most pleasant place to live, and may actually be a fairly expensive operation for the public purse, but it certainly gives homeless people a better opportunity at getting employed and getting off the streets.
Which is basically what the problem with demanding tougher laws against panhandlers entails. We as a society need to be getting homeless people off the streets, not sending them off to jail. For those of them who break the law and assault, steal and kill, that's what we have criminal justice for.
But there is no law against being homeless. Perhaps what we need is a law against allowing people to remain homeless.
That, however, would entail an indictment of our entire society.