Panhandling emerges as a top safety concern

By Alisha Rosenberger

Aggressive panhandling, vandalism and drugs topped the list of safety concerns in Centretown, when results from a safety survey were released to the public at a community forum last week.

Organized by Taking it to the Streets, the survey represented responses from 55 residents about how safe they currently feel and their main concerns about safety in their community.

Taking it to the Streets began as a community discussion to address public concerns of reintegration and risk management programs involving ex-offenders. Since then, the program has expanded to include a wider range of safety concerns, and partnered with over 30 groups to address perceptions of safety within the community.

Although the sample does not represent general perceptions of safety in the community, the information is useful, says Ron Melchers, the survey’s supervisor.

“It’s a purposeful effort to go out and have conversations with people selected at random. This means you’re getting a view that is usually less dramatic, but also far more revealing about the real situation that people feel,” he says.

The forum was organized to encourage discussions of the survey results. It asked the 100 people present — representing community safety organizations, social service agencies, criminologists and concerned citizens — to come up with an action plan to improve on safety within the area.

As the primary concern of the survey, aggressive panhandling fuelled a passionate discussion.

Stephanie Strudwick, a co-ordinator with Centretown’s Neighbourhood Watch Program, says she is tired of encountering beggars on her way to the store.

“Nobody’s ever done anything to stop it, and I don’t feel it’s acceptable. I mean this is not a Third World country,” she says.

Strudwick says monitoring is one of the ways to keep streets safe, and is an advocate for installing security cameras in the “unsavoury” areas of downtown.

Strudwick says she would love to see cameras in three areas: in front of the Rideau Centre, the underpass at Sussex and Wellington, and along Bank Street between Gladstone and Somerset.

Following a model from the City of Hamilton, Strudwick says cameras can make a difference. She says Hamilton has seen ongoing decreases in crime and safety concerns after cameras were installed in their downtown area two years ago. Since then, Hamilton’s assault rate has dropped by 25 per cent and there has been a visible decrease in the number of panhandlers out on the streets.

But Andrew Nellis, a member of the panhandler’s union, says cameras are not the solution. He says cameras would only represent a one-sided picture and would not be concerned with protecting the rights and safety of panhandlers.

Nellis says the relationship between panhandlers and the rest of the community could be vastly improved if they were allowed to sell crafts and other means to make money on the streets.

Nellis says Ottawa used to have a program where panhandlers could get newspapers at cost and sell them on the streets in exchange for donations but the city stopped it.

“They’re working actively against us,” he says.

Still, individuals such as Centretown resident Charles Akben-Marchand, suggest more of an inclusive “love thy neighbour” approach to community safety.

“When you don’t know who a panhandler is and what they’re about, you’ll fear them. Start up a conversation, be approachable. Once you understand you’ll be less scared,” he says.

Despite the main safety concerns, the survey revealed that 69 per cent of respondents feel Centretown is a safe place to live, while 50 per cent say that it is just as safe as other neighbourhoods .

Other issues addressed during the meeting included questions on the relocation of the Elgin Street parole office, as well as the potential for new harm-reduction programs, such as the possibility of a safe-injection site in Centretown.

Complete survey findings will be available through the program’s website.