…Only Outlaws Will Have Panhandles: How The Sun got it wrong on poverty & panhandling

Produced for a 2008 study, this map shows the major panhandling locations downtown. The larger balloons indicate the presence of three or more panhandlers.

The venerable Toronto Sun is on the warpath. Their enemy is — and has been for more than a week now — the act of panhandling. First, they declared the practice one of the three things Mayor Rob Ford must deal with this year, along with eliminating the nickel charge for plastic bags and slapping a licence on cyclists. They then followed that up with almost a dozen articles and columns calling for an immediate and effective end to panhandling. Their preferred method? New laws. Policing. Cracking down.

All this comes despite a complete absence of statistical support and the fact that the city’s hired consultants — you remember them: they said we should consider cutting everything — actually advocate providing more resources to the homelessness program implemented under former mayor David Miller.

As if millions of voices suddenly cried out

No other newspaper in the city is as effective at marshalling their writers around one singular cause. The Sun brought out a parade of reporters and columnists to give their two cents on the matter, with no one deviating from the editorial line. Joe Warmington declared panhandling a “scourge” and did some back-of-the-envelope math showing that, apparently, some panhandlers in Toronto earn more than $40,000 per year. “Robbers,” he called them, hiding behind politicians who “love the homeless and use them as pawns to advance a socialist agenda.”

The parade went on: Sue-Ann Levy declared that it’s “time for action on panhandlers” and quoted a resident who claimed that “shopping on Queen Street in the Beach is like running the gauntlet in a ghetto” due to an onslaught of panhandlers. Ian Robertson had a story about beggars and their “tricks”, making the whole thing sound a bit Tolkienish. Terry Davidson was actually given an assignment to go out and panhandle himself for a while, and report back on what it’s like.

A Thursday editorial was most emphatic: “Solving this crisis begins with making it illegal to live on our streets, period. No excuses.” The same editorial, bizarrely, goes on to advocate treatment programs for homeless people but also seems to condemn the thought of spending more money on such programs.

It’s an impressive display of uniformity, but what’s most notably is what’s missing from all the invective and calls for a law-and-order approach is the answer to two questions:

  1. Has there been a documented increase in the number of panhandlers or homeless people in the last few years?
  2. Has there been a documented increase in the number of complaints about panhandlers from residents or businesses?

You’d think answering these questions is where journalists would start, but the Toronto Sun — maybe in the interest of efficiency — simply skipped the statistic-gathering step and barrelled onward.

Which is too bad, actually, because the City actually put together a rather comprehensive study on panhandling in 2008. It’s well-worth reading, and includes useful things like facts and numbers. (They also produced a map, as above.)

For example: per the study, most panhandlers make about $20 to $25 per day, or about $3.57 an hour. Eighty percent of panhandlers surveyed indicated that they would like to quit panhandling. The biggest barrier they face, according to more than three-quarters of respondents, is a lack of permanent housing. (Contrary to a popular stereotype, the study finds no real evidence for a class of panhandler that is either employed or employable and has permanent private housing.)

But wait, there’s more: business operators in the downtown study area “did not believe the police were the best response” to panhandling. More generally, the report noted that police blitzes of panhandlers in other urban areas “does not seem to necessarily impact panhandling behaviour on a City wide level, though they may curtail the activity in a particular area for a period of time.”

The study was part of a pilot project that saw city social workers — under the Streets to Homes banner — connect with panhandlers. The workers identified more than 100 panhandlers who had access to some form of housing and provided them links to community agencies and other services so they could collect provincial benefits, establish a treatment program for addiction or mental illness, and find employment and/or improved housing.

And I know, this all sounds like silly bleeding-heart liberal stuff that just coddles people and doesn’t produce results, but the numbers are there: after a mere twelve week pilot, more than two-thirds of the panhandlers involved in the program were no longer panhandling. You can read some case studies as part of Appendix C of the report.

Social services programs are the only way to effectively address any panhandling problem, because panhandling is — almost always — a symptom of poverty. We cannot make poverty illegal, nor can we make it disappear. We have to deal with it.

The Gravy Question

But isn’t Toronto’s “Streets to Homes” program just part of the big, ineffective gravy train? Isn’t this just useless bureaucracy? I don’t think so. Since it launched in 2005, Streets to Homes has found permanent housing for more than 3,000 people who were previously living on the streets. Most remain housed for more than a year, which is a substantive achievement when you consider the issues — addiction; mental illness; disability — that lead to poverty and homelessness in the first place.

But, hell, don’t take my word for it. Let’s look to KPMG, who recently put together a big fat whale of a study that essentially put all of the city’s social and cultural services on the table as potential cuts. All, that is, except for Streets to Homes. In fact, on page 48 of their report to the Community Development & Recreation Committee, KPMG actually advocates providing more resources for that program.

It is, as far as I can tell, the only place these consultants have put forth a consideration for more program spending to reduce other service costs.

Panhandling and — more critically — poverty are major issues facing our city, but all the data seems to indicate that Toronto does have an effective strategy in place that could, given more resources, continue to limit the number of people living on the street. It’s unfortunate that the Toronto Sun seems to have missed that and has instead run headline after headline trying to get us to join the cause for police action on homelessness.

We shouldn’t listen. No matter how much they beg.

The KPMG consideration on Streets to Homes

The KPMG consideration on Streets to Homes

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