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Look to Kelowna for panhandling example, Nelson Chamber says

John Boivin Local Journalism Initiative
By John Boivin Local Journalism Initiative
May 19th, 2017

Nelson’s Downtown Chamber of Commerce has asked City Council to take steps to address problems caused by street people in the city, saying they are hurting business and the city’s reputation.

In a letter to Council submitted during the May 12 at the Committee of the Whole meeting, Director Cal Renwick called on the city’s government to tackle the problems that are taking away from Nelson’s “clean, welcoming, interesting and unique downtown core”.

Those problems include “parking congestion, aggressive panhandling, loitering, open drug use, drug dealing, and graffiti”, Renwick writes.

“These issues are having an obvious and undeniable impact on the look and feel of our downtown,” he adds. “This isn’t politics, or judgment, but rather is an unbiased and clear observation.”

This second letter comes on the heels of a May 5th open letter to council, signed by 52 downtown business owners, concerned about the physical infrastructure downtown, revitalization efforts by government, and problem individuals.

Among the initiatives the Chamber would like to see the city adopt is a no-smoking bylaw on city property, to address open marijuana consumption in the downtown core, a panhandling bylaw “to address the nuisance behaviour”, and a three-strikes rule to create a downtown ‘no-go zone’ for people who continue to cause problems.

While the Safe Streets Act regulates aggressive panhandling, the Chamber would like to see provisions that could include “sitting in front of a single business (as to how buskers are regulated), no sitting within a certain distance of a doorway, not panhandling after sunset, no panhandling from vehicles, no panhandling near financial institutions”.

Renwick cites the City of Kelowna’s attempts to manage panhandling as an example for Nelson.

Kelowna’s bylaw has worked reasonably well, says that city’s communications manager.

“It gives bylaw enforcement officers a tool to respond to people,” says Tom Wilson. “It’s a complaint-based thing. It’s not that it’s outlawed throughout the city, but it identifies locations where you cannot panhandle. “

Kelowna has had a panhandling bylaw since 1998. It bans panhandling in front of ATMs or banks, bus stops, liquor stores and other businesses; bans panhandling after dark, from motorists driving, and begging while lying on the street. Fines range up to $2,000 or 90 days in jail.

“It was the result of businesses and residents wanting to have some sort of mechanism where you can get people to move along from in front of their businesses,“ says Wilson. “It works pretty well.”

Wilson says most of the time a bylaw officer handles the complaint by talking to the offender and asking them to move along. He says it’s rare for enforcement to go beyond that- so far this year, bylaw officers have only issued two infraction tickets.

Wilson notes other programs support and help the homeless and poverty on Kelowna’s streets- through government, law enforcement, and medical and social service organizations.

The interim executive director of the Kelowna Chamber of Commerce agrees that support other than enforcement is crucial to make a bylaw work.

“It’s one tool in the toolbox of a number of different actions taken by a number of different parties,” says Ken Bessason, noting it’s not very useful to fine someone who has no money for vagrancy.

“I think everyone would agree the ultimate solution is fixing the homelessness problem, if that’s possible, but certainly efforts have to be made along those lines.”

The letter from Nelson’s Chamber agrees that a bylaw can only go so far, and the deeper problem has to be addressed.

“We are not indifferent to the plight of marginalized people,” Renwick writes in the letter to the City. “We support efforts to assist them. In fact, local businesses contribute regularly to food banks and homeless campaigns, tens of thousands of dollars are donated to local non-profit and charitable organizations annually.”

But the immediate problem is people on the streets undermining the city’s reputation and atmosphere, and it urges the city to move to “ensure that downtown is a safe and welcoming place for everyone”.

The Chamber also called on the city to create a business owner-government working group to work through ongoing problems in the city’s downtown.

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