Posted by: Dan | December 15, 2006

“Project Civil City”

Recently the Mayor's Office of Vancouver launched a new “major initiative” entitled Project Civil City (cf. http://www.mayorsamsullivan.ca/pdf/project-civil-city.pdf). This initiative, which is a part of Vancouver's gearing up to host the 2010 Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games, has four major goals. It aims to (and I quote):

(1) Eliminate homelessness, with at least a 50% reduction by 2010.
(2) Eliminate the open drug market on Vancouver's streets, with at least a 50% reduction by 2010.
(3) Eliminate the incidence of aggressive panhandling with at least a 50% reduction by 2010.
(4) Increase the level of public satisfaction with the City's handling of public nuisance and annoyance complaints by 50% by 2010.

In this post, I want to focus on goal (3).

As a part of gathering research for this document the Mayor's Office initiated a public survey (to which 2469 people responded). Question #4 of this survey reads as follows:

Please indicate which of the following public disorder issues are of most concern to you (check all that apply):
Littering
Aggressive panhandling
Sleeping/camping in public parks or on beaches
Noise infractions (e.g. loud motorcycles, stereos, car alarms)
Open drug use in public places
Graffiti and tagging
Cyclists not wearing helmets
Public urination/defecation
Excessive garbage on streets and in alleyways
Jaywalking
Other

The issue that was of the most concern to the most people (2058 people, or 83.35%) was “aggressive panhandling” and of those who then went on to discuss this issue in more open-ended questions (only 17% of those surveyed) only 22% expressed the “sentiment” (yes, that is the word used in the document) that the Mayor's office should look to the “root causes” of this issue. Now, I find this troubling for a number of reasons.

First of all, it baffles me that “aggressive panhandling” is a greater concern for our city than, say, people sleeping in public places (of course, given the past and current approaches taken by City Hall to issues of homelessness, I would be hesitant to check the box beside people sleeping in public, lest City Hall use this as an excuse to start ticketing, or jailing, people who sleep outside — a strategy employed, not that long ago, by New York City cops… and Vancouver seems to be keen to follow in NY's footsteps — so the survey, like most surveys, is a bit of a catch-22). However, the fact that so many people are keen to reduce “aggressive panhandling” while so few are interested in getting to the root of the issue, suggests to me that the motive here is not so much concern for the people panhandling as it is a desire to just get those people out of my face.

Secondly, I am concerned as to what exactly constitutes “aggressive” panhandling. Not that long ago Vancouver followed in the footsteps of Toronto and passed “The Safe Streets Act” (cf. http://www.city.vancouver.bc.ca/ctyclerk/cclerk/20041005/motionb1.htm). Now this act actually has very little to do with making the streets “safe” but it does have a whole lot to do with removing poverty from the public eye and with furthering the distance between the rich and the poor. This Act determines that panhandling is “aggressive” when it occurs too close to a bus stop, a bank machine, a public toilet, a parking lot, or if the person being solicited is in a car. Furthermore, simply asking a person for change can be determined as an act of “aggression,” and having a sign that asks for change can also be considered “aggressive” and those who engage in such acts can be ticketed (I know one youth in Toronto who racked up $850 in tickets at various downtown locations over a three hour period — because he was trying to get together enough money to buy lunch. Not only did he not end up with enough money for lunch, he also ended up with an astronomical bill that he couldn't hope to pay). Thus, by using the rhetoric of “aggression,” the police and “concerned citizens” (like downtown businesses) can effectively target all panhandlers.

Thirdly, I don't really understand what the big deal is with panhandlers that do end up being more genuinely “aggressive” than others. The most commonly cited case in this regard — and the case that was used to propel Toronto's and Vancouver's “Safe Street” Acts into being — is the case of “squeegie kids” — teens that would wash the windshields of cars stopped at traffic lights in order to earn some change (I know a number of kids who liked to do this because it gave them at least a semblance of dignity — they were working for their money instead of just, in the words of one of my friends, “begging like some bum”). Now it is true that some of these people could get a bit aggressive, they would start washing your windshield before you had a chance to say no. But here's the thing — I don't know a single person in sales who isn't trained to operate “aggressively.” When I worked at a fast food restaurant (ah, those were the days), we were trained to do all sorts of things to make extra money — if the customer asked for a burger, we asked if they wanted cheese on it, or if they wanted a combo. If they wanted a combo we asked if they wanted to biggie size. And then we asked them if they wanted an apple pie for dessert. It's the same in clothing stores. Clerks are encouraged to try and sell more and sell more expensive items. We all know this happens. Yet if a homeless kid acts this way we get a city up in arms, supporting initiatives like Project Civil City. If we're ticketing panhandlers then why aren't we ticketing fast-food chains or retail stores or pretty much anybody else who is trying to make money?

So, all in all, I can't say that I'm that thrilled by this new initiative (I may comment further on the other goals in future posts). Instead of being a step in the trajectory of genuine transformation and care, it is a step that continues the well established routine of City Hall persecuting the poor in order to gain the approval of the wealthy and of corporate business.

Furthermore, that this should be associated with the Olympics comes as no surprise. As noted by a sociologist in Toronto, hosting the Olympics constantly benefits the rich while furthering the oppression of the poor within the host cities (cf. http://mostlywater.org/node/9954). I saw something of this first-hand when Toronto was engaged in bidding for the 2008 Olympics. When the International Olympic Committee (IOC) came to Toronto, the Toronto police went around to all the places where youth were sleeping outside, they gathered up the kids, built a few bonfires, burned all the belongings that were present at the squats (I knew one 16 year old girl who owned only a backpack that contained a picture of her grandparents, a sketchbook, and the teddy bear that she had owned since she was a young girl… and all these things were thrown into the fire), and then packed the kids off to jail. Then, after the IOC left town, the youth were simply kicked back out onto the streets (only this time with no belongings). Thus, as Vancouver gears up to become a more “civil” Olympic host city, I suspect that things will only get worse for those on the margins.

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