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Panhandling in Burlington and the Safety Concerns Around it

Busy intersection at Guelph Line and Fairview. / Google Streetview Screenshot
Busy intersection at Guelph Line and Fairview.

Halton Regional Police Service (HRPS) along with City of Burlington staff and Council have been alerted to a number of individuals asking for money in front of a few local businesses and on some roadways.

Panhandling in and of itself is not a crime, and our City does not have any bylaws making it an offence. There was no staff direction related to ticketing and the city is not pursuing a bylaw related to ticketing drivers as a result of the discussions from the Planning and Development Committee meeting on Sept. 10.

We as a city do not have the legal authority to create a bylaw or issue tickets related to Highway Traffic Act violations, including the activity of drivers in moving vehicles on municipal streets.

At our P&D, a report from the City Manager’s Office was submitted, updating us on what has been done and what we’ve learned from other municipalities. Click the link to read the full City Manager’s Office report: CM-19-19 Addressing Panhandling.

In the report, Halton police describe how it has been dealing with panhandlers and the safety of these individuals and generous drivers on the road:

  • The Halton Regional Police Community Mobilization Bureau has reached out to all known individuals asking for money in the streets. These individuals were offered services including emergency shelter and food banks information as well as the Integrated Support Network where Regional Outreach Workers attend locations and assist in applications for services. To date, very few of these contacted individuals have expressed an interest in obtaining offered services.
  • Officers have noted that not all of these individuals are homeless and that many of the panhandlers have admitted to not being connected with the City of Burlington. A large number of the panhandlers also admitted they commute to Burlington from other areas due to the generosity of the citizens of Burlington.

Halton’s experience with panhandlers is not alone. According to a CityTV investigation in the City of Toronto, most panhandlers in Toronto have not taken advantage of the social services provided by the City. The investigation noted that it costs Toronto $2 million to enforce the Safe Streets Act with only 3 per cent of the fines being paid.

Currently in Ontario, there are two pieces of provincial legislation that deal with panhandling with respect to public safety: the Safe Streets Act and the Highway Traffic Act.

Safe Streets Act:

  • Created in 1999 to curb what was seen as a rise in aggressive behaviour by people asking for money on the street, including through “squeegeeing.”
  • The provincial legislation is only activated when a panhandler at an intersection is doing one of two things:
    • soliciting in an aggressive manner, for example while intoxicated with alcohol or drugs or continuing to solicit a person persistently after the person has responded negatively to the solicitation (this does not include standing at an intersection with a sign); or
    • soliciting while on a roadway people in a stopped vehicle — the important phrase here is “while on a roadway.” Roadway is defined as the travelled portion of the highway and does not include the shoulder, curb or median. The only time the panhandlers go onto the road is to collect funds, not to solicit. (Halton police noted if there are any issues to public safety, they will will respond.)

Highway Traffic Act:

  • Amended in 1990
  • States no person, while on the roadway, shall stop, attempt to stop or approach a motor vehicle for the purpose of offering, selling or providing any commodity or service to the driver or any other person in the motor vehicle.
  • The amended provision now makes it an offence for a person to approach a motor vehicle while on a roadway to sell a service such as squeegeeing a driver’s windshield.

Inspectors from Halton Police have also provided City of Burlington staff with regular updates on sightings and interactions with panhandlers. On June 26, 2019, staff were informed that there had been only one panhandler seen on the streets. On Aug. 8, 2019, we received another update from Halton Regional Police indicating that during the three weeks prior, they had not seen any panhandlers on the streets. Panhandling observed does no break provincial laws or municipal by-laws.

Motion at committee

The motion that the P&D Committee carried (that will head to Council on Monday, Sept. 23 for a final vote) included:

  • Direct the City Manager and the Director of City Building to:
    • Continue to work with the Halton Poverty Roundtable (part of the United Way) as part of their broader communication to residents about poverty; and
    • Update the city’s website to provide information on how residents can assist those in need including donating money; and
    • Prepare communication material for ward-specific newsletters with information for residents; and
    • Continue to work with the Halton Regional Police to monitor panhandling on streets in the City; and
    • Create a social media campaign to provide information to the public that will link to the information on the City website; and
    • Provide information in an issue of the City Talk newsletter with in the next year that will also provide a link with how to get more information on the City website; and
    • Report back to the Planning and Development Committee by Q3 2020 on what initiatives have been completed and what impact they have had.

RELATED LINK:

MY TAKE:

It is so important for our media to be in this room with us. I want to thank them for being at City Hall and reporting on what happens in Chambers. Some people can’t be here and rely on the media for their reports. The media got it wrong in this case. Although there was a discussion of road safety and a possibility of ticketing drivers as an option to deal with this, that option was voted down. The headline and the article said the city was seeking ticketing. That was wrong.

However, what this did was open a conversation across this country. I was interviewed by news agencies in Vancouver about this. This is specifically about the activity of panhandling happening on and in our streets. This City decided to go ahead with a communications plan. We’re not ticketing drivers and that’s not what came out of Committee either. I remain concerned about the potential safety risks. In photos, you will see individuals go across multiple lanes of traffic to get change and then going back to the safety of the median.

This communication plan is also to spread awareness of where to go for help and supports in our Region and how they can be accessed. What message are we sending to the community if we say, in order to get the help you need, you have to walk into traffic. We have to do better — we must do better and we will.

I mentioned the option of police giving tickets (or preferably a warning) to drivers for careless driving for giving money to panhandlers at busy intersections. This would be a chance to educate drivers that this behaviour puts drivers and pedestrians, including panhandlers, at risk and isn’t the best way to help those in need.

If they can pull drivers over and educate them that what they’re doing isn’t safe, that could also be an opportunity to hand over a pamphlet that shows how the driver can help in better ways.

No one should have to stand in a median and put themselves at risk to get help. As a society, we need to do more.

Poverty is often — but not always — related to issues of mental health. We have a caring community and that is why it is so effective for folks to ask for money.

True that to date, there have been no safety issues, but that is to date. We don’t want to wait for an accident to happen before we do something. I do believe there is a safety issue – that has always been my concern, and we’ve been lucky there hasn’t been an incident.

We really do need to send the message if drivers truly want to help people, $10 donated to an agency can be leveraged into more funds because of their partnerships, to help many more people than that single donation ever could. Donating to someone on the street is not safe and not good fundraising. We need to continue to help the people in need in our community in the best ways possible.

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13 thoughts on “Panhandling in Burlington and the Safety Concerns Around it”

  1. – As the Mayor, I would like to hear actual concrete things you are doing to address poverty and homelessness in Burlington.

    – I would like you to cite specific places in Burlington that are credible and provide good services to minorities where I can donate my time/money/items.

    – I think even the SUGGESTION of ticketing people for being generous and kind – even if this is not the best choice – is irresponsible and should be completely removed from the discussion.

    – Overall, I agree that panhandlers on the traffic medians put the panhandlers themselves at risk. The other day I saw a man who was clearly intoxicated and swaying slightly standing on a very narrow median. I could imagine a misstep and him stepping into traffic by accident quite easily. However, I don’t want this man fined. I don’t want him locked up. I want him to get services and real support and help to manage his addiction.

    It is absurd to me that FINING panhandlers was even attempted. People are panhandling because they are dealing with poverty, mental health, addiction, or all three. Making someone in that situation pay money because they are in a desperate situation and not being adequately assisted by their community is disgusting and backwards.

    1. Hi Samantha,
      This is John Bkila, the Mayor’s Media and Digital Communications Specialist. I am providing you the link to an online resource booklet done by Halton Region (http://bit.ly/WhereToGetHelpInHalton) that lists several ways and places where folks can get help, some of those include:
      • the Halton Alcohol, Drug and Gambling Assessment Prevention and Treatment (ADAPT) Services (adapt@haltonadapt.org);
      • Halton Multicultural Council Connections provides Transitional Housing for Newcomers (http://hmcconnections.com/);
      • Support and Housing Halton (shhalton.org) offers community-based housing, mental wellness programs and support for individuals living with mental illness (though its HQ is in Oakville, it does have a satellite location in Burlington);
      • Burlington Food Bank (burlingtonfoodbank.ca);
      • as well, we recommend contacting the Halton Poverty Roundtable, run by the local United Way (https://www.uwhh.ca/halton-poverty-roundtable/) as they would be a great resource that could provide more insight on how you can help.

      One of the staff directions that was carried by Burlington Council during committee discussions was to direct staff to continue to work with the Halton Poverty Roundtable (part of the United Way) as part of their broader communication to residents about poverty.

      Thank you for commenting on the Mayor’s website.

  2. Since when is it ‘careless driving’ to give a destitute person a few bucks while stopped in traffic? The vehicle is not in motion or the exchange could not happen. It is not your right to tell me who or how to give aid to. An act of kindness should not result in ticketing or prosecution.

    1. The problem is $10 here and $10 there add up to a lot of money these people are raking in. Consider it a scam.

  3. This is way beyond stupid!!!! to fine someone that is simply helping someone that is down and out should be encouraged, definitely not fined.
    There was a brief period when I had to panhandle to live and it did save my life.

    Must be nice for you to have gone through life without that necessity!!

    1. Hi Lawrence,
      This is John Bkila, the Mayor’s Media and Digital Communications Specialist. There has been some misinformation in some of the media stories out there – to clarify, Mayor Meed Ward is not against panhandling in Burlington. In previous discussions on this issue she has stated she would never want to take that ability away from an individual in need. The issue, however, is one of safety and doing so at busy intersections, crossing lanes of traffic.

      That’s why Mayor Meed Ward, in her full My Take (included above at the end of the post), she references that there are several organizations that work to assist those in our community in need and why the generosity of Burlington residents would be better directed to those organizations that can benefit from donations and leverage those into more dollars to assist. All in a safe way to all those involved. As the Mayor has stated no one should feel they need to put themselves at risk by standing in the middle of busy intersections to seek help.

      With respect to the idea of ticketing, that was but one suggestion the Mayor put out during the discussion portion of the committee meeting (that was not clearly stated in the original media stories) — she also said she preferred a warning over ticketing to be given to drivers to advise them what they were doing is unsafe and there are better ways they can help those in need. In addition, no direction was ever approved at the Committee level to direct City of Burlington staff to do or look into doing either of those things.

      Thank you for commenting on the Mayor’s website.

  4. Very little chance that someone can be charged under the Highway Traffic Act for giving money, etc., to panhandlers if they are not stopping in moving traffic. Giving tickets or even a warning would likely be characterized as harassment.

  5. Excellent idea! I feel for those who really are doing it because they need money but I’m not so sure it isn’t an extra source of income for those that don’t. They are usually found on the islands near traffic lights during rush hour which is dangerous for them and a distraction for drivers. I’ve seen traffic being held up due to the “transaction” process and most often interacting in the advance left turn lane.

    1. An extra source of income? You really think someone has a day job and then chooses to sit in the rain or shine on a traffic median panhandling for “extra income?”

      These are people struggling with addiction or mental health issues or poverty or all three. Framing this as an “extra source of income” is pretty disingenuous.

  6. This is right up there with stupid things politicians do and say!
    People are begging for a reason. I don’t think anybody enjoys asking someone else
    for change to survive. Why do these politicians not focus their funds and energy on a solution
    to solve this crisis.
    I work on Bay Street in Toronto and every corner has someone sleeping and practically living there
    full time. It is ridiculous that anyone should have to live outside in our country.
    Not everyone is going to be able to keep or get a job due to multiple issues and there will always be
    people who will need financial aid and politicians should recognize this.
    The thought of giving a ticket to someone who is trying to help someone in need is just ridiculous and
    the mayor who said that…well thank God she is not my mayor

    1. Hi Natalie,
      This is John Bkila, the Mayor’s Media and Digital Communications Specialist. You are absolutely right in that in reality, there are folks who cannot maintain employment due to several reasons and there are people who need financial aid. Mayor Meed Ward does recognize this and that’s why in her full My Take (included above at the end of the post) she references that there are several organizations that work to assist those in our community in the situations described earlier and why the generosity of Burlington residents would be better directed to those organizations that can benefit from donations and leverage those into more dollars to assist. All in a safe way to all those involved. As the Mayor stated no one should feel they need to put themselves at risk by standing in the middle of busy intersections to seek help.

      With respect to the idea of ticketing, that was but one suggestion the Mayor put forward during the discussion portion of the committee meeting (that was not clear in the media stories) — in fact, she said she preferred a warning over ticketing to be given to drivers to advise them what they were doing is unsafe and there are better ways they can help those in need. In addition, no direction was ever approved at the Committee level to direct City of Burlington staff to do either of those things.

      Thank you for commenting on the Mayor’s website.

  7. Very happy to see this direction in dealing with a concern that was repeatedly brought up by voters while canvassing in the last municipal election. Cudos to Mayor MMW and team.

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