Wednesday, May 12, 2004

Tougher laws against street people not the answer

VICTORIA - I learned to to look carefully out the bus windows in Mexico City whenever we hit an intersection. A red light might mean a human pyramid - a man on the bottom, a kid about 10 who clambered up to stand on his shoulders and then a five-year-old, often in some ragtag costume, who scrambled up to stand on the very top, madly blowing a whistle. A silent ta-daa, everybody leaps down to the hot pavement and then dashes to collect money from drivers before the light changes.
It was weirder outside the main business district. There it was often just sickly looking men who took big swigs from plastic bottles and then breathed fire across the street, hoping drivers would toss them a few coins. (They were sickly looking because they used a mix of diesel and water to make the flames.)
Which leads, in a circular way, to MLA Lorne Mayencourt's bills that aim to put an end to squeegee people and aggressive panhandlers, and make it easier for property owners to bar people they don't like.
Mayencourt probably reflects the views of many people in his downtown Vancouver community. Many of them find panhandlers not just a nuisance, but threatening. Others wish they would all just go away.
And I can see that.
But it also gets a little uglier. Mayencourt did a reasonable job of explaining why he had introduced the bills in a scrum outside the chamber. But then he went a little father: "We're telling them that the streets belong to the people who pay for them."
So you low-income single mom, these aren't your streets. A citizen's rights are linked to the amount of taxes he pays.
You can make a good case for setting limits on peoples' actions, at least ones that affect others. If confrontational panhandlers make people feel unsafe, then there's a case for stopping them.
It's tricky ground. It's unrealistic to say people should simply ignore the approaches of panhandlers. If someone feels menaced, if their ability to make use of the streets is reduced, then something should be done.
But it's a short step from that argument to sweeping away anyone who makes people feel uncomfortable. And that 's wrong and dangerous. All people have a right to use the streets and public places.
The other problems with Mayencourt's bill are purely practical. It's hard to see how they are going to make any real difference.
Mayencourt cited the example of a woman whose car window was smashed by a squeegee person as an example of the need for a new law. But assault, smashing windows, threatening people, even jaywalking are all already offences. If law enforcement is the answer, the tools are already there.
It's not. Police have better things to do than arrest panhandlers, or issue tickets that they can't pay because they have no money.
There are no simple answers. One response is to look at why people are on the streets. If cuts to support programs for at-risk youth or a lack of treatment options for the addicted or mentally ill are a factor - and they likely are - then that needs to be part of the solution. If people are camped out in storefronts because there are no other safe places, then why not provide them?
At the risk of being simplistic, part of the answer lies within us. If we see these people as threatening aliens and respond in that way, we set the stage for deeper division. If we nod and say hello - even without giving money - we bring our community together. (And if we make personal contributions to the many effective agencies working with them, we do even more.)
We tend to like simple solutions: more law and order, or more social spending.
But ultimately this is about people and how they get along. And that is never simple.
Footnote: Mayencourt's bill isn't going anywhere. The big guys in government aren't keen, and only one private member's bill has passed in more than 20 years. That was MLA Steve Orcherton's bill extending patient's right to alternative health care. The Liberal repealed it shortly after the election. But it's still healthy to see a backbencher at least getting an idea on the agenda.

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