Killing with kindness? Fredericton’s response to panhandling

Written by Asaf Rashid on July 23, 2015

Billy the panhandler

“Billy” the panhandler, named and dressed by busker Andrew. Photo by Asaf Rashid.

Downtown Fredericton Inc., in partnership with the City of Fredericton, has recently installed new “kindness meters” in the downtown area as part of a strategy to end panhandling.

The meters are refurbished parking meters, painted green and put on downtown sidewalks in areas frequently used by panhandlers and buskers. They each contain the message, “Panhandling is not the answer: donate your spare change to this kindness meter and make a difference. Money collected by this meter will support local community groups assisting those in need with food and shelter.”

The money is currently destined in a 50/50 split towards the Fredericton Community kitchen and Fredericton Homeless Shelters.

Fredericton City Councilor Greg Ericson is chair of a joint task force between Downtown Fredericton Inc. and the City of Fredericton to address panhandling concerns. This body also includes a representative from the Community Health Clinic.

Certain kinds of panhandling activities have been complained about by downtown merchants and residents, Ericson explains, namely what he refers to as “aggressive panhandling.”

Aggressive panhandling exists in a gray area. “Sometimes it’s discretionary, either the police or (other authority) deciding,” Ericson says. “Frequent examples are when someone receives change and gets up and follows someone to demand more.” The extent of this variety of panhandling is unclear.

While aggressive panhandling has been identified as major source of complaints, ending all panhandling is the objective of the strategy. As put in a July 6th interview with CBC News, Bruce McCormack, General Manager of Downtown Fredericton Inc. said, “We want to get rid of the pan handlers, simple.”

Roy, a local panhandler does not fit the description of the aggressive panhandler. “I don’t ask people for nothing. I sit here and mind my business. If people want to give me a couple of dollars, that’s fine.” His activities would also be targeted by the strategy.

Roy is concerned that the introduction of the meters will be used as an excuse to fine panhandlers more often. Law enforcement can issue tickets for between $140 – $640 for panhandling.

Ericson says that the city has no plan to increase enforcement of the bylaw now that the meters are in place.

According to information provided by Ericson, the Police Department issued 29 panhandling tickets in 2014. To date in 2015, 22 tickets were issued.

Two days after the NB Media Coop interviewed Roy, he said he was told by police to put his panhandling cup away.

The strategy to tackle panhandling does not focus entirely on the panhandler. Ericson explains that the strategy also aims to intervene on those who provide money to panhandlers.

“If we consider the elimination of panhandling a virtuous and humanitarian end … what we could do is divert the income into areas that provide services to people who panhandle, hoping that they would choose not to panhandle because the income stream isn’t worth their time, and to avail themselves of the services that are then better funded.”

Dan Weston, director and founder of the Fredericton Anti-Poverty Organization, sees the problem of panhandling going beyond the poverty economy alone. “It’s not a function of individual shortcomings, it’s the function of (larger economic forces) that just can’t provide any more or just doesn’t want to.”

Roy doubts that the meters will be of much use to those who panhandle.

“They say money is going to the soup kitchen (and other services for the poor), but I don’t think they’re going to receive all the money. I think half of it is going to be pocketed. They’re just doing it to stop us panhandlers. And I can do better panhandling (than going to the service providers).”

Weston thinks the meters will create more harm because they will not replace panhandling income. “We don’t want taxpayers money going to individual panhandlers. So, all sorts of individual panhandlers will be left high in lurch and will have to discover other ways of making money … driving people into more situations where they’ll have to break into more and more houses to get some things to take and sell for food or drugs or whatever (needs) poverty brings you.”

Andrew, a local busker suggests that the meters actually create more panhandling. “Whether they call them a kindness meter or not, it’s a machine turned into a panhandler for the city. If they’re going to do this, they should just send out the councilors. They might actually make more money that way.”

Andrew is concerned that the meters are responding to buskers as well. “They say they’re not (to prevent) buskers, but at least two or three have been put in busking spots.”

While the meters are specifically said to be a deterrent to panhandling, the larger strategy on panhandling does include a response to busking, which was initially projected to be paired with the kindness meters.

“We wanted to roll out, simultaneously, a more coherent and effective busking policy,” says Ericson. The City is considering creating a licence system for buskers. “It will be a very low barrier to entry, $5 – $10 for a 2 week trial period. Then the person can get a seasonal pass. Someone has to be serious about being a performer (to get a pass).”

Ericson recognizes that assessing legitimacy for buskers can be tricky and has been a sticking point in bringing any licencing system in place, suggesting a market-based filter (public opinion) could be measured during a trial period. Ericson says the busking policy will likely come into place in the fall.

A further piece of the panhandling strategy is to revive or create other income streams for those who panhandle. Specifically, Ericson notes the “… loss of the bottle exchange plants downtown has meant fewer income streams.”

Within the last 15 years, two bottle exchange plants moved out of the downtown area. Ericson says that the city is considering bringing back bottle exchange plants to the downtown area as a means to provide opportunity for those in need.

Currently, the only piece of the panhandling strategy in place are the kindness meters. The Joint Task Force on Panhandling is expecting them to yield results. However, Ericson notes assessment will be difficult.

“We know cities that are doing it, the revenues generated, but not how effective they have been at combating homelessness or panhandling. There is no hard evidence on the functionality of them,” says Ericson. Similar kindness meters are in place in Montreal, Ottawa, Windsor and Victoria.

Ericson wants the province of New Brunswick to join the city of Fredericton in their anti-poverty measures. “We have yet to have provincial members at the table, which is a tremendous loss. The Department of Social Development, this is within their mandate. Their absence diminishes our chances to do anything effective here,” says Ericson.

Also notably absent from the panhandling committee have been panhandlers and buskers. “There has not yet been members invited to the table who have lived experience or lived experiences of poverty… (but) it’s crucial to see the (directly affected). I want them to sit at the table.”

Roy says that no one asked for his opinion on where resources for the poor should be put, namely the money from the kindness meters.

Roy, like many other panhandlers, see themselves as misunderstood. “I’m not a bum, just a panhandler,” says Roy.

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