Panhandling is a subsistence activity of last resort for thousands of homeless and vulnerably housed Canadians in cities from coast to coast, and Fredericton is no exception. As reports of panhandling activity in Fredericton’s downtown have found traction in local media, it is important to further understand this issue in order to strengthen the community’s capacity to deliver evidence based solutions.
Who panhandles and why?
A recent peer reviewed article appearing in the Canadian Medical Association Journal surveyed the individual characteristics along with income and spending patterns among panhandlers in Toronto. A summary of survey findings show:
The majority (82%) of panhandlers have not completed high school, 100% of panhandlers have experienced at least one episode of homelessness, with 65% saying they were currently homeless, 70% of panhandlers reported having a chronic health condition or disability, in the 12 months prior to the survey, 9% stayed overnight in a psychiatric hospital, 14% stayed overnight in a detoxification program, and 20% stayed overnight in jail. On average, panhandlers reported average hourly earnings of $8, with a daily average of $30.
The study also revealed that 70% of panhandlers prefer steady income through employment, but cite barriers to employment due to mental illness, physical disability or lack of skills. Of the panhandlers who were housed in a room or an apartment, the study stressed that “any loss of [panhandling] income could easily lead to homelessness.”
A study in Winnipeg reports similar findings, as does informal surveying by local outreach services in Fredericton.
Enforcement as a deterrent to panhandling
Laws that prohibit and restrict panhandling activity have been on the books for centuries. They did not work in 1349 when English vagrancy laws were introduced, and they do not work today.
Attempts to reduce panhandling under the Safe Streets Act in Toronto have been a resounding failure. Charges under the Act increased 228% over a three year period without a discernible decrease in panhandling activity.
After comprehensive review of laws prohibiting and/or restricting panhandling across the country, the Canada Research Chair in Urban Change and Adaptation concluded, “The bottom line is that legislation has not been an effective short term, or long term, solution.”
Panhandling is a symptom of many complex and interrelated issues that require a coordinated response versus the short term fix offered by displacement, ticketing and incarceration. The cost of administering police, court, sheriff and jail services for unpaid panhandling fines in Fredericton can easily exceed $1000. Such resources should be redirected to pay for rent top ups or housing oriented outreach services that work toward permanently ending homelessness and housing insecurity.
Homeless and at-risk youth: potential, promise and possibilities
When you walk by a homeless youth in Fredericton, do you see a nuisance, or do you see potential, promise and possibility?
There are an estimated 65,000 young Canadians between 16-24 years old who are homeless or at risk of homelessness. Homeless youth in Canada are coping with mental health issues at a rate of 2.5-5 times higher than the national average for youth. Furthermore, homeless youth with unmet mental health needs will be homeless longer.
Urgent action must be taken before Canada faces another lost generation of youth to homelessness. The Daily Gleaner recently shed some light on the experiences of 20 year old Brad Reid, who panhandles to get by. He can’t read or write, he’s has recovered from an addiction and spent time in jail. According to the Daily Gleaner article, he would prefer to work, but no one will hire him.
The “Market Basket Measure,” or MBM is a poverty line that is based on a specific basket of goods and services representing a basic standard of living. Brad’s monthly social assistance cheque is just over $300 per month, or only 27% of the MBM. No wonder he resorts to panhandling.
The response: ending homelessness is within reach
Canadians from coast to coast are saying that it is time to end homelessness. The know-how and tools are available, but more partners must come together to leverage and coordinate the required resources.
The impact of street level outreach combined with a “housing first” approach has a proven track record in Fredericton. Shelter use has dropped 30% in four years, and demand for costly emergency and institutional services with it.
The opening of the John Howard Society’s supportive, affordable housing development for twelve formerly homeless and vulnerably housed men and women has reduced the demand for costly emergency services. Since opening, demand for hospital stays among clients has dropped 88% while justice system interactions have plummeted by almost 94%.
Our approach to ending homelessness goes hand in hand with the community’s desire to reduce panhandling. By addressing the fundamental housing, income and community support issues facing vulnerable members of our community, we can also build a vibrant, inclusive, and safe downtown for everyone.
Conversations about panhandling mark an invitation for the entire community to get involved in championing constructive solutions to homelessness. We are here to listen, support, and partner with anyone who wants to come aboard.