In this occasional feature, two Torontoist staffers face off to debate an issue that is important to our city. We invite our readers to join in the debate in the comments section after the post.
Photo by moonwire from the Torontoist Flickr Pool.
Last week, as Ross Hammond and a friend were walking up Queen St. West near Trinity Bellwoods Park, they were confronted by four panhandlers demanding money. A verbal confrontation escalated and Mr. Hammond was stabbed several times. His friend was also assaulted. Hammond later died of his wounds in hospital. This incident has sparked a fierce debate about what should be done about panhandlers in our city, with many people calling for an outright ban on the practice. Do we need new laws to protect ourselves from street people begging for change, or was this just an isolated and unfortunate incident? Read on as Torontoist contributes two cents…
It’s time to ban panhandling in the city of Toronto. It shouldn’t have taken a murder to prompt calls for action against an activity which has now reached levels that would be considered outrageous in most Third World cities. In some areas of Toronto it’s not uncommon to be asked for money 5 or 6 times within a single block, and we’re not talking playful banter with jolly Pickwickian beggars. These are, by and large, encounters with highly able-bodied people who are often well aware of how to use the intimidation factor to their advantage.
The voices in favour of the status quo are principally politicians whose exposure to panhandling comes on the walk from City Hall to the parking garage, and professional poverty “advocates” who make a living handing out sandwiches to the homeless and platitudes to the press. Their case can be summed up succinctly; firstly that begging is necessary, and secondly that it’s harmless. Both arguments are stupid.
The case for necessity is preposterous. Does anyone in Toronto really need to beg to survive? A walk down Queen St isn’t to be importuned by skeletal wraiths, one foodless day away from a pauper’s grave. Nope, in this city our beggars are made of sturdier stuff—ruddy, apple-cheeked youths in the prime of life, wearing iPods and chain-smoking enthusiastically. As police will attest, many of them travel here from other cities around North America specifically because it’s considered a great place to spend the summer doing a little urban camping. Between food banks, soup kitchens, and mobile Twinkie and sleeping bag distributors, this is not a city in which it’s easy to starve.
That’s not to suggest that real poverty doesn’t exist, or that all panhandlers are making a lifestyle choice. Some are mentally ill, and for others their addictions have taken them to a place where it’s impossible to keep a job or a permanent place to live. However, in whose interest is it to let these walking wounded wander the streets begging from strangers until they die of overdose, exposure, or simply being too worn out to live anymore? Certainly not in theirs, and we as a society have not just a right, but a responsibility to actively help them deal with their demons and their addictions. To enable a dead-end lifestyle on the street and call it freedom is nothing more than a cheap substitute for charity.
Panhandling is also far from harmless, as Ross Hammond learned last weekend. At its worst, the kind of aggressive, menacing approach that has become all too common is a barely distinguishable from an out and out mugging. However, even the quietest and most unassuming of beggars helps to create an atmosphere of decay and disorder on the street which adversely affects the livability of the entire city. Anyone who spent time in the malevolent, urine-soaked cesspit that was New York City through most of the ‘80s can testify to the relationship.
It’s time to stop talking about the rights of panhandlers, and to recognize the right of the public to walk the streets without fear of harassment. Will City Hall finally step up to the plate?
Our city is full of tragedies. Ross Hammond’s death is one of them. Thankfully, the people responsible for it are behind bars, and they will undoubtedly go to jail for a very long time. End of story. There is no need for a new law to deal with this situation. The ones we already have will do just fine. Harassment, assault with a deadly weapon, manslaughter, and second-degree murder are all already in the Criminal Code. If those do not seem like enough, we also have the Ontario Safe Streets Act, which bans various forms of panhandling, including aggressive panhandling and panhandling in traffic.
Another tragedy we might remember at this time is the death of Paul Croutch. Croutch was a homeless man who lived in the Moss Park area, near the armoury, and in September of 2005, he was beaten to death in an unprovoked attack by three young reserve soldiers attached to the Queen’s Own Rifles. A homeless woman named Val was also severely beaten by the young men when she tried to intervene on Croutch’s behalf.
Blaming all panhandlers for the death of Ross Hammond makes as little sense as blaming all soldiers for the death of Croutch. Those who want to seize upon Mr. Hammond’s death as a way to ban panhandling altogether are nothing more than blatant opportunists.
The fact that we are now embroiled in a debate about how threatened some of us feel by panhandlers ignores the simple fact that the homeless, in general, have much more to fear from the rest of us than we have to fear from them. The homeless are amongst our most vulnerable citizens. They inspire hatred and revulsion in many people, and when they are attacked they cannot generally rely on protection or even sympathy from the police or the public at large.
There’s no question that most of us find panhandling a distasteful practice. It confronts us with realities about misery and poverty that we would much rather prefer to ignore. It makes us feel guilty. And for that reason, it is a practice that needs to continue. It helps to ensure that it never becomes too easy to forget that our system leaves many people behind.
Thankfully, a movement to ban panhandling is very unlikely to succeed. In a ruling regarding the Ontario Safe Streets Act earlier this year, the Court of Appeal unanimously found that begging for money is a form of speech protected by the Charter. And well it should be. In a society where we protect the freedom of speech, the speech that says “I am in need, please help me” is sacred. It is, at its heart, a political statement that points out the flaws of rampant and heartless capitalism. Banning it or even severely limiting it does a disservice to the freedoms we all hold dear.
No one should be harassed for money. No one should be made to feel as though their personal safety is at risk should they refuse to donate. But we also should not be sheltered from the fact that poverty and homelessness exist. In the end, the only sensible way to get rid of panhandling is to combat the poverty that drives people to do it.