Panhandling is Toronto’s dirtiest open secret. We rarely talk about it, yet every single person who walks our streets or rides our transit will inevitably encounter someone begging for spare change. The only variable is whether the request will come gently or aggressively. No neighbourhood is exempt, no storefront is immune, and no citizen can move about unaware of its presence. That goes double for the summer tourists soon to descend, and who will find themselves furiously shaken down from Queens Quay to Eaton Centre. (This particular local specialty isn’t in the guide books, though maybe it should be.)
The question is: why? Why is panhandling so pervasive here? Why do so many panhandlers scan as white and able-bodied, and does it matter anyway? Is panhandling a sad but irrefutable symptom of deficient social services or merely an urban blight perpetrated by ne’er-do-wells? Are we keeping panhandlers on the streets by giving them money? And what is the City prepared to do about it? We sought answers from those on the front lines. The short answer to panhandling is: There is no short answer.
1. It really is as widespread as you suspect.
Experts agree panhandling is linked to homelessness, and homelessness in Toronto is significant (endless new condos notwithstanding). According to a 2013 Street Needs Assessment (SNA) survey conducted by the City of Toronto in cahoots with 500 trained volunteers and team leaders from the community, an estimated 5,253 people were homeless in Toronto on the night of April 17, 2013 (representative of any given night in the city). Some 447 individuals, or 9 per cent of Toronto’s homeless population, are estimated to have been sleeping outdoors that night. (The rest were in the shelter system, hospitals, treatment centres, and correctional facilities.)
On the plus side, the 2013 SNA asserts that “panhandling among the homeless has decreased” to 6 per cent in 2013 from 10 per cent in 2009 and 17 per cent in 2006 (when two previous SNAs were conducted). However, this data was self-reported by individuals offered a $7.50 gift card for their cooperation in completing the survey. And panhandling among the housed (even the vulnerably housed) wasn’t tallied.
“We don’t do a census of panhandlers, so we cannot comment on whether there are more panhandlers on the streets,” says Patricia Anderson, a spokesperson for Shelter, Support & Housing Administration (SSHA), the City division responsible for housing and homelessness services.
“We do know that many panhandlers are in fact in housing and rely on panhandling to make ends meet. When you compare social-assistance rates and minimum-wage rates to the cost of housing in Toronto—plus long waiting lists for subsidized housing and low vacancy rates—it may not be surprising. For example, Ontario Works for a single person [in January 2014] was $526 a month. The average market rent for a bachelor apartment was $907.”
So the exact number of panhandlers out there is anyone’s guess. Still, the fact that the SNA was able to complete nearly 2,000, 13-question surveys in a six-hour period over a single night among those claiming homelessness augurs pretty poorly for us all.
2. Panhandling is not a red-hot political issue at City Hall.
“We did deal with it maybe five or six years ago as a city under the previous administration, but it’s not even close to being on the radar right now,” confirms Toronto City Councillor Joe Mihevc (Ward 21, St. Paul’s West), who is cited by front-line workers as especially conversant on the subject.
“The Streets to Homes program [introduced in 2005 under then-mayor David Miller] was, among other things, created to reach out to panhandlers and to deal with more fundamental issues they were dealing with—poverty, homelessness, mental health or addiction issues. And it adopts a social-service approach rather than a policing approach.
“In that regard, I think we are pioneers,” Mihevc continues. “Streets to Homes was noted in a United Nations report [in 2008] as a top-notch strategy for dealing with homelessness. But that’s at a symptomatic level. At a deeper level, we have a lot of work to do in the area of poverty reduction, homelessness, social assistance and for people to get adequate income from employment, even when that employment is full-time.”
3. It’s not much of a policing issue either, evidently.
“We don’t have a policy that is specific to panhandlers,” snaps Mark Pugash, director of corporate communications for Toronto Police Service, when asked if there is any protocol in place for dealing with panhandlers. “There is no reason to distinguish panhandlers from other people. The law is there, the law is applied. I can’t tell you how often police are called in to respond to panhandlers because calls are not classified in that way. We respond to calls for service. That’s our job.”
4. Why do panhandlers always seem to be Caucasian men, First Nations, or teens?
Probably because they are. “Consistent with previous years, respondents identifying as male represent almost two-thirds of the homeless population in Toronto (65%),” according to the 2013 Street Needs Assessment. Moreover, the report says that “as in 2006 and 2009, individuals self-identifying as Aboriginal are vastly overrepresented among Toronto’s homeless when compared to their share of the general population.” Statistics Canada data pegs 1.2 per cent of GTA residents with Aboriginal ancestry, yet a third of the outdoor homeless population identifies as Aboriginal, according to the SNA.
Meanwhile, street youth, in the eyes of Jim Nason—a social worker and director of operations with Loft Community Services—are often runaways from smaller communities. “I mean, 25-year-olds with college educations can’t get jobs in our culture,” says Nason. “So try and imagine being a small-town kid escaping to the city seeking somewhere safer. Queer kids—and trans kids in particular—have horrible experiences on our streets because they are easy targets.”
For the first time in 2013, SNA respondents were asked whether they identify as part of the LGBTQ community; one in five teens did. Military veterans also made their debut on the 2013 SNA list, which also found the average age of homeless people has continuously increased from 38 in 2006 to 42 in 2013; the share of seniors in the homeless population doubled from 5 per cent in 2009 to 10 per cent in 2013.
5. Are those with mental-health and addiction issues disproportionately represented?
Pretty much. “The number of absolute homeless in the country living with mental illness is estimated to be about 119,000,” says Steve Lurie, executive director of the Toronto branch of the Canadian Mental Health Association. ”When you include people with mental illness that are vulnerably housed, that number grows to 520,000.”
“If you put that in an Ontario context, you have about 40,000 homeless people with mental illness and 117,000 who are vulnerably housed. The GTA is about a third of that; 13,000 to 14,000 who are homeless with mental illness and well over 40,000 who are vulnerably housed in Toronto alone. These are evidence-based numbers. Panhandling is a symptom of our failure to provide people with housing and income.”
6. LCBO stores are magnets for panhandlers, so they must have a conduct policy, right?
Wrong. “It’s something we are aware of and it’s something stores deal with—some more than others,” says Lisa Murray, senior communications consultant with LCBO. “But it’s generally dealt with at the store level on a case-by-case basis.
“If people are being especially aggressive or disruptive—if there is a public safety issue—we will contact property management or police. But our staff is very good at determining what, if any, appropriate action needs to be taken.”
7. What about local BIAs?
Same: No specific policy in place, at least not at the Queen St. W. BIA or Parkdale Village BIA—two neighborhoods habitually targeted by panhandlers albeit at different ends of the spectrum (more youth in the former, older and more entrenched poor in the latter).
“Homelessness, poverty, and supporting people with mental health issues is such a big part of our neighbourhood,” says Anna Bartula, executive director of Parkdale Village BIA. “We have many organizations in our neighbourhood supporting people going through troubling times. So we are more about working together to help,” she says, adding that bicycle cops in the area are particularly accommodating.
“Both 14 Division and 52 Division—depending on what side of Spadina you are on—are very helpful in supporting the business community,” says Melissa Lam, executive director of the Queen St. West BIA. “Because police have good relationships with other city services, they can better manage any next steps involved.”
8. But aren’t some panhandlers scammers?
Probably, and it sucks to think they might be diverting food money from a hungry person to buy drugs. But panhandling is still a horrendous way to live. “People don’t aspire to be homeless or to panhandle, to sit at somebody’s feet and have them walk by and maybe drop them a quarter,” says the CMHA’s Lurie.
Adds Nason of Loft Community Services, “The biggest misconception about panhandlers is that they’re lazy or apathetic. It’s not fun at all. Streets are unsafe, and people on the streets are very vulnerable.
“There are always the exceptions. I remember a story from a few years ago about a woman begging on the street who was followed home and discovered to be living in a lovely apartment with all the amenities. That’s the story we [as a society] cling to, because it alleviates our own guilt and apathy around this situation. But if people are out there on the street asking for money, they generally need it.”
9. Does forking over money keep people begging on the sidewalk?
No, according to our experts. Spare change can actually help, albeit short-term. Plus, “there is a human aspect to contact,” Nason says. “That metaphor of a hand reaching out to help is real, even if it is just dropping a loonie in a hand.”
“Clearly, giving or not giving is a personal decision,” says Anderson of the SSHA. “But there are other ways to help create long-term solutions, perhaps by supporting community agencies that provide social housing or housing assistance or homelessness services that include helping people find and keep permanent housing.”
Adds Nason, “You could try saying something [to a panhandler] like, ‘You’re here because you’re here, but here is a list of shelters or social service agencies that might be helpful.’ Drop that in the hat with your 50 cents.”
10. In moments of extreme donor fatigue, try and remember that…
“Sometimes being on the street is safer than being at home—these people are often the most alienated, disenfranchised, and needy,” says Nason. “Something really sad has happened to put someone on the street.”
And maybe as a city, we should be more curious about what that sad thing is—and how we can collectively combat it—instead of just huffily marching past.