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HELSTON: The issue behind the issue of panhandling

Charlotte Helston is the Vernon reporter for InfoNews.
November 13, 2015 - 8:09 AM

The instinct to look straight ahead and avoid eye contact tends to kick in when we approach someone asking for cash on the street corner, but as Vernon tackles the touchy topic of panhandling, we can’t simply look away, and here’s why.

Ever since a Vernon food truck vendor spoke out about being harassed by transients and even attacked, a storm has been brewing on social media about Vernon’s ‘problem’ with panhandling. The topic came up at a recent city council meeting, and while one councillor was adamant that a crackdown on aggressive panhandling is needed, most elected reps felt it isn’t an issue at all. Some councillors described the city’s panhandlers as polite and respectful, and the mayor even said that in 22 years, he’s never seen one in Vernon.

Whether or not panhandling is an issue seems to depend on who you ask. If you ask the food truck vendor who is out on the street all day trying to earn a living, it’s an issue. If you ask a politician who is sensitive to the community’s homelessness issues, the answer might sound different. Our views on panhandling differ greatly based on our experiences. 

Not all panhandlers are homeless, and not all are honest about their life stories or how they’ll use your money if you give it to them. There are aggressive panhandlers, and there are people who sit quietly with a bedroll and a cardboard sign, smiling at you as you walk by. There’s a perception out there that anyone who begs for money is no more than a lazy lowlife trying to get enough money for their next hit. The truth is, you just don’t know what circumstances forced them to the street with palms outstretched in the first place.

People who live on the street often struggle with mental health and-or addictions issues. Some might be veterans fighting the demons of PTSD. Others might have been born into life on the street. Many just slipped through the cracks, never connecting with the services they needed to put them on a brighter path. These are the real problems our society faces. Panhandling is just one of the ways we see it.

There was a feeling at this week’s council meeting that it’s problematic to even talk about panhandling out of fear it will create the perception downtown is dangerous. But talking about it might be a good thing. There’s now a workshop being planned by local agencies to educate and inform people about safety and how to handle interactions with Vernon’s street people. A little education could go a long way to dispelling some of the myths around homelessness, and understanding how best to handle these interactions just might make people feel less afraid.

A better understanding of the interconnected issues of panhandling, homelessness, addictions, mental health and affordable housing is a good start, but the fact that we have people on the street is still an issue, simply because we should be doing a better job of providing them the help and resources they need. It’s not about tightening up panhandling bylaws to sweep street people out of sight or to make sitting on a sidewalk a crime — it’s about seeing these people as members of our community, not outsiders.

This conversation mustn’t be about hiding street people, but about what we can do to help them.

To contact a reporter for this story, email Charlotte Helston at chelston@infonews.ca or call 250-309-5230. To contact the editor, email mjones@infonews.ca or call 250-718-2724.

News from © iNFOnews, 2015

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