Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Panhandlers Are Not the Problem

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.


  1. While Red Tory might call you intelligent I'll call you... uh... pleasantly inconsistent.

    Yesterday you suggested that if the Palestinians want a Palestinian state they should move to Syria. Now today you've written one of the best posts I've ever read addressing homelessness and aggressive panhandling in Canadian society.

    Who is Patrick Ross?

    Aggressive panhandling is a symptom of a larger societal issue and you aptly outlined and critiqued both progressive and conservative solutions.

    Fantastic post!

  2. Good post, Patrick. There is another cause of panhandling, which you didn't mention, and which might require a different solution: drugs.

    When a panhandler gets violent, my own first question is whether the person was on drugs, or coming down off something.

    Clearly there is no one-size-fits-all solution. Some are drug addicts, some are mentally ill, some have made unfortunate choices, some are thugs and some are professional panhandlers.

  3. I actually have a good deal of experience with panhandlers. A good friend of mine took up an anarchist political ideology and began panhandling and living on the street as a form of rebelling against the system.

    His parents drive a Mercedes (a diesel Mercedes, which is actually very good on fuel).

    He didn't need to panhandle, and I considered it an immoral act, because he was recieving money that could have helped people who really did need to panhandle.

    I also have some experience with aggressive panhandlers, including two who tried to fight each other in an Edmonton LRT station over who would get my change (neither did).

    Some of them I have no empathy for. One called to me for change from across a Save On Foods parking lot. He had a smirk on his face (which was full of piercings). He didn't get a red cent either.

    But panhandlers aren't bad people. Many of them have made bad choices, many of them have been dealt a poor hand in life. I can't hold that against them.

    Dylan, as for Syria being a Palestinian state, everything I've read about the Middle East suggests precisely that. Perhaps Syria has changed significantly over the past 20 years, but Syria has historically had a considerable Palestinian ethnicity, and these Palestinians have from time to time been the majority. The books I have suggest that, at the time they were written, ethnic Palestinians made up the majority of the Syrian population.

    This is one of the reasons why Palestinians are the cause of so much tension in Syria today, because the boundaries between historical Syria and historical Palestine have always been the subject of contest, to point in which the king of Syria once suggested that Palestine should be ceded as part of his kingdom.

    Then again, most of these books were also written at the time of the Lebanese civil war, before which Christians were the majority in Lebanon. In other words, they're clearly out of date.

    If the situation in Syria really is that much different now, then I'll admit that I'm clearly behind the times, and wrong about my suggestion that Syria is a Palestinian state.

    Clearly, the Middle East is not my strong point, and I need to bring myself up to date.

  4. You're right, Penny, I should have mentioned drug rehabilitation programs. I'm a bit embarrassed to have allowed that to elude me.

  5. Can't think of everything, Patrick!

    A propos of Syria and the interminable border disputes, one of the problems - which certainly partly answers the "Why do they hate us?" question - is that none of the boundaries in the Middle East reflects the various tribal populations which have historically lived there. The borders were created by none other than the French and British carving them up over the centuries to suit their imperial purposes...

    More info about that here if anyone wants to get a broader picture.

    As well as that, what seems like a long time ago to us North American whitemen - say, a few centuries - is as nothing to people whose families have lived somewhere for millennia.

  6. Brilliant post, Patrick. I think you've managed to hit the nail right on the head of the subject.

    How a society treats those at the bottom of the pile is an acid test of how well it lives up to its values. I am a Canadian Tory; I value good government. Ignoring problems is not good government. (Neither is just throwing money around as do drunken sailors and thinking you are working on the problem.)

    It is this sense of where the issue really lies that makes your observations hit the mark. Well done!

    (Radical Tory)


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