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Panhandling bylaw rescinded while city takes new tact on making streets safer

Timothy Schafer
By Timothy Schafer
June 25th, 2018

The panhandling bylaw is no more.

The city has repealed its controversial initial attempt at legislating those who call the street home after many months of strategizing and deliberating on how to craft and enforce codes of street conduct.

Mayor Deb Kozak apologized for the initial bylaw, calling it “erroneous.

“It should never have been called a Panhandling Bylaw because panhandling as an act itself is not illegal and cannot be illegal,” she said. “It is under Charter of Rights and Freedoms that people are allowed to ask for money. This was not about whether people ask for money, but behaviour on the city streets.”

The Panhandling Bylaw was presented for adoption in July of 2016 and was subsequently deferred until the fall of 2017 to provide the opportunity for completion of the one-year pilot for the street outreach program.

Since the first and second reading of the Panhandling Bylaw a few things have been put in place that have changed the climate of the downtown, said Kozak, including a full-time beat police officer, the street outreach team and the city’s intent to not draw the court system into ensuring there was civility on the streets.

“But we wanted to move forward in a way that would help us, help our police and bylaw department have more tools in their belt,” she said.

As a result, city council voted to rescind the Panhandling Bylaw and introduced the Traffic (Pedestrian) Bylaw, which outlined civil behaviour on the streets and how the city hoped to achieve it.

“This is part of that larger strategy of how to best manage the expectations on the streets,” said city manager Kevin Cormack.

The pedestrian regulations in the amending bylaw deal with unacceptable behaviour on the city’s streets that apply to the entire community rather than being specifically focused on the activity of panhandling, as was originally introduced, said director of corporate services, Frances Long.

The new bylaw would add another “tool” in the belt of police and bylaw officers, she added, in addition to the Provincial Safe Streets Act legislation, through which the police have the ability to specifically deal with aggressive panhandling.

In a discussion between the restorative justice coordinator and the city it was felt that restorative justice would be a good tool for dealing with pedestrian offences.

However, in order for restorative justice to apply, an offence must first be recognized as a bylaw offence rather than a criminal offence, Long said.

“It is recognized that issuing penalties to persons who may be at the poverty line does not make common sense,” she said.

Bylaws are needed to make it safer on the street or to make it feel more comfortable on the street, and people should not be impeded and businesses should not be impeded from doing their business, said Coun. Michael Dailly.

“I think this is a good move, a good step forward, it’s also about how do we enforce this,” he said. “We need to educate people that it is not okay to lie down in a doorway and go to sleep. At the same time we have to look at this. These are our most vulnerable people that live in our community and on the streets.

“We need to find better ways to ensure they don’t end up on the street.”

The bylaw amendments would go a long way to ensure the city had the staff and the resources to go out and talk to people and let them know what was okay and what was not, Dailly added.

“It is those repeat people who are going to be treated effectively by the court system, or maybe even banned from downtown if they are doing this repeatedly,” he said.

The draft regulations of the new bylaw were reviewed by the three stakeholder groups with limited comments:

  • the “social sector” expressed concern that some of the street population may be challenged by the language, although alternate language was not provided;
  • city police indicated that more specific language with respect to defining “obstruction” would be preferred although they were comfortable with applying discretion; and
  • the business sector “strongly indicated that they would prefer stronger language,” including specifics about where panhandling was permitted.

Third reading on the bylaw was passed by council.

Putting teeth to the bylaw

The city also set the penalties for violations of the rules of the road in the downtown.

Although there is a fine attached to the bylaw, the first course of action for the Pedestrian Bylaw is to educate people before going through enforcement, said Kozak.

“This is how we conduct ourselves … this is the message we are giving to bylaw and the police, when we want this enforced and what our course of action is. It’s always to inform people and educate before we actually enforce a bylaw,” she said.

The idea around setting a price for fines for breaking the bylaw is that without an amount there could not be a bylaw, said Cormack.

Everyone recognizes you need penalties in the bylaw or it is not enforceable,” he said. “So it’s a requirement.”

Although the people who may be penalized on the street might not have any money, the prices listed in the bylaw might be much more reasonable than the Safe Streets Act, said Coun. Janice Morrison.

The fine for obstructing the street, or being a street or public space nuisance, is $50, reduced to $20 if it is paid early (within 14 days), then up to $100 after 28 days.

“I think the schedule developed here … in terms of the dollar figure is reasonable,” Morrison said.

Some fees could be replaced by restorative justice, said Cormack.

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