Toronto City Council’s powerful Executive Committee has unanimously adopted a detailed panhandling strategy that bucks the terrible trend throughout North America to criminalize activities associated with homelessness, housing insecurity and poverty. The plan recognizes that there are socio-economic and health issues that drive people to beg for change on the city’s streets and, therefore, the best response is not to arrest and ticket panhandlers, but to ensure that they have access to housing, supports and income.
It was particularly heartening to see representatives from Toronto’s business, tourism and entertainment all stand in support of this plan – along with the Wellesley Institute. Even Toronto Police Services spoke against criminalizing panhandling and in favour of the approach that tackles the fundamental concerns. Just one year ago, many business groups and others were clamouring for a police-led crackdown on panhandling.
The TO plan, which still needs the approval of City Council later this month, calls for a “housing first” approach to dealing with panhandling. It recognizes that growing poverty and housing insecurity are driving most people to beg on the streets, and that a significant number also suffer from physical and mental health concerns, including substance use. But instead of condemning the poor for being poor, the Toronto plan commits about $5 million to help panhandlers find affordable homes, an adequate income and the supports that they need.
The Wellesley Institute, in our submission to the committee, noted that the Statistics Canada data released last Thursday confirms the dire trend in growing income inequality in Toronto. We also pointed out that many cities – including New York City – have tried to criminalize activities associated with homelessness (including panhandling), only to find that this costs more and doesn’t actually reduce the number of homeless people. And we called on the city to re-double its efforts to ensure that there is adequate housing and services for those who need it.
We’ve noted in our municipal budget submission that Toronto needs to ramp up its spending on housing and services, needs to re-double its efforts to convince senior levels of government to renew critical investments in housing and other social infrastructure and, until a comprehensive housing and anti-poverty strategy is adopted and funded by senior levels of government, needs to ensure that the city’s emergency relief system – including homeless shelters – are properly funded.
One key factor that swayed many councillors was a simple message: The cost of doing nothing far outweights the cost of an effective and practical solution. That’s the core message from the Wellesley Institute’s Blueprint to End Homelessness, which was released in 2006, and city councillors and city officials quoted our Blueprint in support of sensible and humane plan to address the real needs of panhandlers.