Monday, July 24, 2017

Panhandling in Winnipeg

It is hard not to notice that it is growing, expanding out in every direction and not very passive. Near every shopping area, intersection and street are people begging for money. Unpacking your groceries, you are likely to have someone come up to you and ask for money just as you place your cart back and get the loonie in your hand.

Many people can be kind and generous but a commute home is running the gauntlet. Worse is that someone's generosity could lead to harm as a result of traffic involvement, overdose or any other number things. It has happened. A man was killed by a bus while panhandling downtown in the last few years. Overdoses are up and deaths have climbed in cities across North America.

Drug use has been fairly permissive for decades but fair to say the death tool has risen. There are many factors responsible for this. Individual and societal causes have resulted in more people living on the streets. No single reason stands out as the driving force as to why so many end up on the street, so many begging, so many with mental and physical problems and so many dying.

The reaction of people to the rise of panhandling has generally been mixed. We have numerous agencies who receive cash and food donations. Beds and clothing are provided. Street patrols assist people on getting care for health and safety. Generosity comes from many people in the province. Government, non-government, churches, business, family and individuals are key to a civil society.

The reaction to panhandling is usually counter to what our good nature is. Fear, distrust, anger, disgust and a whole host of other emotions run high. Why? I expect it is because experience makes us jaded pretty quickly. Very early in our lives we discover that some people take things from us, toy with us and may even be a danger if we don't use common sense.

I've been attacked myself walking to University of Winnipeg in the past a few years despite trying to avoid a conflict. Race, gender, age are irrelevant to me in certain areas where steering clear seems a safe policy. I don't need another black eye thinking I'm safer than anyone else. The casualty of aggressive panhandling is people's trust. And with good reason. Even a hero of Winnipeg street people ending up attacking someone who was about to give him food.

With that in mind, what can good people do to help those in need while at the same time not contribute to growing panhandling numbers in the city?

1. Don't give change out in the streets ever. EVER. It isn't safe. It isn't safe for you, it isn't safe for them.  If you feel guilty and think you are helping, you are not. If you feel it is a toll to pay for your safety, it is not making you or the next person safe. If you think it goes to help that person, it is not. It is an excuse to bypass social and health services, family, friends and anyone else who could make a difference. It could be just the right amount of money for someone to end up dead which should weigh more heavy on people's consciousness more than anything else.

2. Contribute money to where it can help, has been proven to help. Give money, food and clothing to shelters and food banks. Volunteer. Mentor. Help to a woman's shelter, a food bank or substance abuse program goes a long way. Giving money on the streets keeps people from seeking that help and enables the disconnect.

Every dollar someone gives on the street continues the cycle. The police won't remove people who passively panhandle. And the ones that are more aggressive only sometimes end on the wrong side of the law. On and on it goes. If panhandling was not successful, it is hard to imagine someone standing at various intersections or weaving in and out of traffic for no reason.

This does not solve the problems of poverty and people should not turn a blind eye to it.  Still, it is important to know that giving money on the street is not a good harm reduction strategy. Do your part elsewhere and keep your head high knowing you are making the right decision.

As for myself, I contribute every month to the Winnipeg Foundation with the intent of creating an endowment for an inner city school. I also contribute to health and social services every year as either a volunteer or with money. I'm not rich. In fact my job ends after nine years and I will taking over as a business person. If I seem calm about it, I do feel a little scared of the jump into unknown. I should do alright, maybe better than alright. However, I don't forget there are people who have great obstacles beyond my own. I'll try to help. Will continue to help.

Let's try to do it the right way and put money where it can make a real difference.


Anonymous said...

Thank you for your thoughtful explanation of why we shouldn't give to panhandlers. I encountered this with my children when we went to Regga Fest - they were confused and felt sorry for the panhandlers. They did say to one that they were sorry they did t have any money because they were children and they gave him a fist bump. I was proud that they saw the panhandlers as people. I tried to explain why we shouldn't give them cash - I expect further conversations about this.

John Dobbin said...

It a tough decision to make but it isn't a heartless one. Kids are particularly sensitive and should be directed to how to give safely and wisely.

Anonymous said...

This is a great essay. I wish more people understood the risk in giving change to panhandlers and how there are many other ways you can help. I'd like to see this posted on CBC :)