The West Ender
Thursday, April 16, 1998

Guy Bennett
The Flipside

p. 10.

Beggars don't need the money here

After taming Vancouver's hot dog vendors and buskers, Mayor Philip Owen has turned his critical gaze onto the ragged platoon of panhandlers who work the downtown core.

"It's a question of shared public space," said the mayor, after listening to complaints from irate West Enders, including one woman who was forced to lock herself in her car to avoid an "agitated" panhandler.

Clearly there is a continuum of behavior from passive begging (sitting on the sidewalk jingling a Styrofoam cup) to extortion (blocking the path of an elderly woman in a darkened parking lot).

Nobody is suggesting that we outlaw panhandling completely. As Councillor Gordon Price put it: "The challenge is to define exactly what is acceptable behavior on the street."

It shouldn't be hard to legislate against agressive panhandling. It's already illegal for prostitutes to solicit customers. Why not expand this law to include panhandlers? Let's not stand around fidgeting while good citizens are being bullied out of their pocket money.

Strangely, it's "passive beggars" who seem to cause the most emotional anguish. Vancouverites look miserable as they stride past them, and yet when they do stop and donate, they are usually flushed with humiliation. This quandary is exacerbated by the relentless cheeriness of many of the panhandlers.

In fact there is no reason, in this city, ever to give money to a beggar. We have an extremely generous social service system. British Columbian welfare recipients are given rent money, food money, medical benefits, dental benefits, free prescription drugs, bus passes, swimming passes, daycare allowances, furniture allowances, clothing allowances, counselling and plane tickets to the funerals of close relatives.

These benefits are augmented by dozens of charities and churches which give away meals, coffee and clothes. Vancouverites are so beneficent that these charities are often backlogged with donations. In one skid row shelter I worked at, we tried to give away a rack of winter coats -- and failed -- because everyone in the neighborhood already owned six winter coats.

Panhandling is a good way of raising funds for tabacco, booze and recreational drugs. It's an even better way of making a public declaration: "Look at me -- I'm a useless human being!"

As long as the panhandlers don't threaten or obstruct you, they have every right to make this statement. But it's cynical to give them money unless you're absolutely sure they're right.

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Created: April 23, 1998
Last modified: April 23, 1998

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