Outreach groups, BIAs wrestle with panhandling problem

By Sidura Ludwig

The business improvement associations’ (BIAs) safety patrols are supposed to help Centretown residents feel safer in the summer.

But the patrol staff make people like Gary James feel anything but.

“I just felt harassed. And it’s not as if I was harassing people.”

For the last three summers, the safety patrols have combed Centretown streets, looking for incidents that might be problematic, such as shop break-ins or panhandling.

And the BIAs plan to have them back on the streets this summer.

James spent last summer sleeping on Centretown streets. He didn’t panhandle, he says, but was bothered anyway.

“They were basically jerks, hassling me all the time. I would just avoid them as best I could,” he says.

Clara Freire, manager of Centre 507, sympathizes with James.

“If we have someone who’s quietly panhandling, the security patrol would stare them down,” she says. “We’re talking about people with no social or economic power. It’s a little bit of bullying.”

Centre 507 is an outreach program for people who are homeless or living in poverty.

In September, it and other outreach programs met with Centretown BIAs, such as the Bank Street Promenade, the police and the city’s homelessness initiative team to talk about concerns with the security program and to consider ways for organizations to work together.

Paul Weber, co-ordinator of the initiative team, says the meeting was a good start.

“It was a good opportunity for people to hear each other’s concerns.”

Since the meeting, the organizations have begun to work more closely together. Now, as a result of the meeting, outreach workers in Centretown carry identification badges so police, security patrol or businesses can easily identify them. Businesses also have a contact list of the outreach services in the community.

Freire says it’s important that the groups continue communicating.

“We need to work together so that we’re not in isolation of each other,” she says.

Gerry LePage, executive director of the Bank Street Promenade BIA, agrees.

“We are always receptive to new and creative ideas on how to improve our programs,” LePage says.

But he says he has seen dramatic results with the current program.

“Since we have engaged in this program, we have seen significant and substantial reduction in aggressive panhandling.”

And how has the program affected business in Centretown?

“Is there a better quality of life?” says LePage. “Absolutely. Does that translate into sales? One would have to assume so. If one feels threatened in a neighbourhood, one will stay away.”

The security patrols are not replacing police officers, says LePage. They alert police by phone to problem situations.

And they have no more rights than the average citizen. They are allowed to observe the community, report incidents, and with permission from business owners, enforce the Trespass to Property Act, LePage says. Last year, the patrol issued trespass notices when panhandlers were found on business property.

But are the patrols too threatening?

“That’s a question of interpretation,” LePage says. “The litmus test has to be: has anyone been physically harmed? I’m not aware of any incident . . . . (This program) is about getting assistance for individuals in trouble.”

The police say they’re happy to have the extra help on the streets.

“From our prospective, we look at anyone as eyes and ears on the street,” says Sgt. Paul Wilson. “We aim to work in co-operation with anyone to make the streets safe for all concerned.”

Some Centretown residents say they’re happy to have the help. Brooke Prior, manager of Second Cup on Bank and Slater, says she had to walk home late many evenings last summer.

“Being a single woman, it was always nice having them around the building,” she says.

Prior says she’d like to see more patrol on the streets.

“If it’s a question of whether this is an asset, then yes.”

Weber hopes to have another meeting with outreach workers, BIAs and the police in the spring. He says the city’s job is to act as a “mediator” between the groups.

“I think the biggest step we’ve made in the last year is getting the people involved in dialogue.”

Weber also says over time but surely, the groups will work more consistently together.

“My hope would be that we’ll continue to build relationships with the groups so that the misunderstandings are limited.”