HALIFAX – As several Maritime cities consider measures to fight aggressive panhandling ahead of the summer tourist season, police and social experts warn it is symptomatic of a larger societal problem that can’t be solved through enforcement alone.
“It’s a challenging problem for law enforcement because panhandling is not an illegal act,” said Insp. Lindsay Hernden, a divisional commander with Halifax Regional Police.
Earlier this week, Charlottetown council moved to amend its nuisance bylaw to prevent panhandlers from blocking pedestrians from freely walking by them and also to prevent them from soliciting “captive audiences” at places such as banking machines and bus stops or in vehicles stopped on a roadway.
Charlottetown deputy police chief Gary McGuigan said while the majority of his city’s panhandling is considered passive in nature, the numbers of people soliciting for money in the downtown area has increased and the move is meant to keep the activity under control.
“Some people may be intimidated by it, some may not,” said McGuigan. “But there were concerns from businesses about the amount of panhandlers.”
Halifax has seen a growing number of complaints recently from local business associations about aggressive panhandlers who follow and badger people for money.
It’s something police are examining, Hernden said, although he added officers have rarely encountered what’s been described as aggressive panhandling. He said when an incident does occur it usually involves a person who has some sort of mental health issue.
“Most of the information that we are getting along these lines is anecdotal,” he said. “We do not see a significant amount of reporting.”
Jeff Karabanow, a professor with Dalhousie University’s School of Social Work, said it’s possible some of the growing numbers of people who end up on our streets are more aggressive, but it’s not something he’s experienced in downtown Halifax.
“That’s not to say that it doesn’t happen here and there,” said Karabanow.
He said he understands why businesses in particular would want to complain about panhandlers frequenting their storefronts when they are trying to attract consumers.
“I think the bigger question is we have some very deep core issues around poverty that are not being addressed and we are going to see more and more people in informal economies and engaging in street survival,” Karabanow said.
This week’s move by P.E.I.’s capital city is the latest in a series of measures taken by communities across the continent.
Last month, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio signed a bill to restrict the movements of “pushy” panhandlers in Times Square in order to prevent them from blocking pedestrians in traffic-free parts of the square.
The legislation was in response to long-standing complaints about panhandlers harassing tourists for tips or to pay for such things as photos.
McGuigan said Charlottetown businesses have also installed so-called “kindness meters” in an attempt to get people to donate to soup kitchens, the local food bank and the Salvation Army.
It’s a move that’s been tried in other communities in an attempt to cut down on panhandling, including Fredericton, where six used parking meters were converted to support aid groups.
In Halifax, Hernden said police have asked city legal staff to review the current bylaw, although he added police aren’t pushing for any changes at this point.
He said police have a close relationship with many of the panhandlers in the downtown area and know they are on the streets for a variety of reasons — from mental health and addiction problems to homelessness and the need to supplement their incomes.
“We are not going to solve this issue through enforcement,” said Hernden. “It is going to take a community of people to come together and deal with some of the underlying issues that exist that lead to a person being on the street.”