Toronto, like many cities, has a large number of people asking for money. Some are quite insistent, others are passive. Among the most annoying and persistent are those asking for money for a conservative charity or a mainstream media outlet. They can interfere with my access to a GO Train, yell and disturb passers-by and in other ways make life difficult for those who would rather be left alone. Similarly, there are people asking for themselves, behaving in the same way as those hired to represent corporations and the charitable establishment. Some just stand quietly, with their hands out. Others have a line of patter, a few can be very aggressive. Whether begging for money and attention on behalf of others or on behalf of themselves, these panhandlers are indeed a nuisance.
Dealing with panhandlers, either the self-employed types or those who as volunteers or paid staff of organisations and businesses, is draining. Every effort to get me to give money is a reminder of my own economic limitations. Every effort to get my attention is an effort to convince me that the broader world has urgencies and priorities that I am expected to cope with, It wears upon me whether I am approached to get a newspaper subscription, give to a charity or help some individual get through the day.
Some members of Toronto council have called on a complete ban on panhandling. Others have called for a ban only in the downtown core. In all of the debates on the topic it does seem that panhandling for one’s self in the concern, not panhandling itself. There is no call from elected officials to limit commercial or organised charitable efforts to beg for money or business, only for limits on what individuals can do.
I will admit that some of those on the street corners who are homeless are very hard to deal with. I avoid parts of Parliament Street, if I can, to avoid the panhandlers in the block from Gerrard to Carlton. There are individuals who make me feel very uncomfortable often found either in front of No Frills or the Shoppers Drug Mart. However, other than avoiding the stretch, there really isn’t much that I can or will do to address the problem. I won’t invite panhandlers into my home for a meal; I won’t hire them. I continue to advocate for more drop-in centres, better social services, a guaranteed annual income, more affordable housing, drug treatment efforts and other community based programmes—ways of ensuring that there are effective alternatives available—but these are long term efforts undermined by the rise of a neo-conservative agenda. If I won’t directly address the problem faced by these individuals by offering hospitality and compassion and economic opportunities, it would be wrong to ask the state to address their problems by jailing or fining them or causing them to disappear from the public eye.
As long as I can’t go through Union Station without some business or charity staffer reaching out for my money, there should be no restriction on those panhandling for themselves. The actions are the same. As long as businesses can feel free to harass me, those living on the streets or otherwise marginalised should have the same freedom.