Thursday, October 07, 2004

Safe streets bill not a real answer to urban problems

VICTORIA - I'd file the Liberals' safe streets legislation under empty gestures.
The Campbell government - after some initial scoffing - has glommed on to MLA Lorne Mayencourt's idea that tougher laws are needed to get rid of squeegee people and aggressive panhandlers.
Mayencourt introduced his version of a Safe Streets Act last spring. The private member's bill would have made it an offence to approach cars offering to clean windshields and put strict limits on soliciting money. It would bar panhandling near ATMs, or at bus stops, and outlaw threatening or intimidating behaviour or language. (Yes, those are already illegal.)
The government was cool to the idea, and the bill - along with Mayencourt's proposed new law that would let landlords bar people more easily - didn't go anywhere.
But the proposals seemed to play well with the public, so Premier Gordon Campbell sent Mayencourt off on a tour around the province to talk about the proposal. And when delegates to the Union of BC Municipalities backed the idea last month, the government decided it was time for its own version of the laws.
"People want to feel safe in their towns, they want to feel safe in their streets," Campbell said this week.
The government was expected to introduce the bill early this week, but backed away. It's tricky, as Attorney General Geoff Plant noted when Mayencourt floated the balloon, to write a law that won't get tossed on constitutional grounds or have unintended consequences. (Mayencourt's bill would have made a Girl Guide selling cookies at a bus stop into a law-breaker.)
The public reactionshows that people perceive a real problem, not just in Vancouver but in smaller communities across the province.
And this is one of those cases where that perception matters.
If people feel threatened in their communities, that is a real problem. Their right to use the streets - to go downtown shopping, or walk a child to the park - is being limited. That's unfair.
The law faces its own problems. It is a thin and crumbly line between dealing with people who are threatening, and sweeping away people because they make us feel uncomfortable. The streets belong to all of us, but much of the talk from the bill's supporters contemplates an underclass with fewer rights than the rest of us.
The law is also largely symbolic. Virtually all the things Mayencourt complained of in explaining the need for the bill could be dealt with under existing laws. He cited a case in which a woman's car window was smashed by a squeegee person as evidence of the need for the law. But assault, smashing windows, threatening people, even jaywalking are all already offences.
The laws are there. But police have better things to do than arrest panhandlers, or issue tickets that people with no money can't pay. They don't believe that would be effective.
The law is best viewed as a gesture, an acknowledgment that the public would like to see something done even if the government doesn't actually think the idea will work. In politics and life empty gestures sometimes have their uses.
Locking up panhandlers isn't going to happen, and wouldn't work if it did. The real solutions are likely to come from finding out why people - especially the most difficult people - are on the streets. Lack of treatment or housing for the addicted and mentally ill is one likely cause of problems. So is inadequate help for youths to keep them off the street, and give them a chance at a better life once they are there.
The best hope for change is a committee of five majors asked by Campbell "to tackle the challenge of mental illness, homeless and addictions in B.C. communities." The five - Kelowna's Walter Gray, Prince George's Colin Kinsley, Victoria's Alan Lowe, Surrey's Doug McCallum and Vancouver's Larry Campbell - have a chance to offer real solutions.
And that will make much more difference than another unenforced law.
Footnote: Vancouver's police chief says people shouldn't give to panhandlers, but Campbell says he does. People concerned about the problem also have the option of giving to community agencies that help people find their way off the streets. And each of us can change the tone simply by being pleasant to our scruffier neighbours.


Anonymous said...

Thank you, this column is an example of why I appreciate Paul Willcocks' wrting: thoughtful, balanced, insightful, compassionate and promotes dialogue.

I feel so sad that the issue of people living on the street and approaching others for spare change has become a "wedge" issue for the Liberals. LIke Bush with gay marriage, "wedge" issues promote confrontation, fear and hatred rather than exploring complex issues and understanding, and respecting, different values. Maybe that's good for winnng elections but its not good for society, its not a good model for our kids. And its no wonder the under 30 crowd, while socially active in their communities, doesn't bother to vote.

Yet, I confess that I too unconsciously started not going into downtown Victoria with my young daughter to avoid the "panhandlers". A couple of weeks ago the downtown business assocation promoted a market day, and we went downtown. It was wonderful. I had forgotten what a great city Victoria is to explore. it felt very safe too maybe because there was a fun kids' activity area outside city hall with lots of police officers mixing with the community and different types of police cars to view.

Must go, its a busy day.

RossK said...

I'm with anonymous above on the post Paul; good stuff, again, you call 'em as you see 'em and if I don't always agree with you, well that's just the way it should be.

Regarding anon's concern about going into downtown with their young daughter, I occasionally feel a similar twinge on the Granville Mall with my kids....

Maybe the real question that needs to be asked is.... why do we feel that way in previously, and still occasionally, vibrant downtown cores, but not in Suburban Malls?