Proposal to help get panhandlers off streets receives strong endorsement – Ontario – Proposal to help get panhandlers off streets receives strong endorsement
May 6, 2008. JEFF GRAY With a report from Jennifer Lewington

Business leaders, the police and a prominent left-wing advocate for the homeless endorsed a proposed $5-million-a-year city strategy to help panhandlers off the streets yesterday, leaving council opponents of the mayor virtually alone in their opposition to the plan.

Mayor David Miller’s executive committee yesterday unanimously approved the proposal to expand the city’s Streets to Homes program – which finds apartments for homeless people – to hire the equivalent of 48 more full-time temporary staff so outreach workers can use a similar approach to help panhandlers, some of whom may already have places to live. The plan will now go before city council later this month.

The proposal, which would see panhandlers coaxed into addiction counselling and even jobs with local businesses, was applauded yesterday as a world-leading initiative by members of downtown business-improvement associations, which had been involved in a year-long effort with city staff and the mayor’s office to come up with a plan.

Security was tightened at yesterday’s meeting in case of protests. However, the tone contrasted with a hearing last year on the issue, in which business owners complained of assaults and public urinating and called panhandling a form of “organized crime,” while activists for the homeless compared those calling for a crackdown to the Nazis.

It was after that meeting that city housing bureaucrats, including those that run the mayor’s Streets to Homes scheme – credited with getting 1,700 people off the streets since 2005 – sat down with the affected business leaders and began to draft the new anti-panhandling strategy, conducting a pilot project and surveying the city’s panhandlers.

In addition to business groups, the committee heard from Michael Shapcott, an advocate for the homeless who had criticized Streets to Homes, who said he supported the panhandling plan. Councillors also heard from Superintendent Hugh Ferguson, commander of downtown’s 52 Division, who approved of the city’s proposed approach and acknowledged that current methods are simply not working.

Supt. Ferguson said that while there has been a dramatic 288-per-cent increase in tickets given to “aggressive” panhandlers since 2004, most of the fines are never paid as many of the accused do not show up in court, and police believe their efforts are having little effect on the street.

In the past, conservative voices on council would hassle the left-leaning mayor and his supporters by calling for a crackdown on panhandling or a city bylaw to make it illegal, cheered on by downtown business owners. Yesterday’s meeting left it to Mr. Miller’s council critics to raise questions about the program’s costs.

Councillor Denzil Minnan-Wong (Ward 34, Don Valley East) argued police should be instructed to go after panhandlers and arrest them if they are breaking the law, saying that New York and other American cities had cleaned up their panhandling problems, an assertion disputed by city staff.

“If the panhandling community saw that the city was taking a tough approach, we’d see less panhandling,” Mr. Minnan-Wong said.

Brad Butt, president of the Greater Toronto Apartment Association, which represents landlords, was one of several business spokesmen who appeared at yesterday’s committee to endorse the strategy.

In an interview, he said the city’s approach makes economic sense: “The right-wing guys, even though I agree with them most of the time on issues, if these guys are dollars-and-cents councillors, then this is clearly the most effective way, the most efficient way and the cheapest way to deal with this problem.”

He said that compared to the enormous costs of hospital beds, jails and homeless shelters, the cheapest way to help is to provide panhandlers with social services such as housing allowances and mental-health or addiction counselling.

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