Fear is not something most people feel when walking the streets of Salmon Arm’s downtown.
There is little violence and few robberies. Unlike big cities, Salmon Arm’s downtown is on the sleepy end of the scale. Interesting, engaging and unique, but not life-on-the-edge bustling. On Sundays, it can border on comatose.
But there are a few panhandlers. This past year, more than in previous years.
A detailed report to council from city staff says from zero to four panhandlers, depending on time of day and season, could be seen downtown. A number of municipalities have panhandling bylaws, with varying degrees of success. A bylaw has been drafted for Salmon Arm that extends the zone laid out in the existing provincial Safe Streets Act, where panhandling is prohibited, from five to 15 metres away from certain businesses. It also includes a fine from $50 to $2,000 for non-compliance.
The phrase ‘getting blood from a stone’ springs to mind.
In talking to some of the people sitting on the sidewalk – who, with the odd exception, are men – they talk about distressing things happening in their past which led to their current situation. The death of someone close to them, the loss of a job, becoming addicted to drugs or alcohol, having a physical disability or mental illness, or sometimes all.
Most say they would prefer to have a home of some type so they wouldn’t have to plunk themselves on the sidewalk. Most have a little cardboard sign and don’t harass passersby.
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But no doubt there are exceptions. Maybe the odd one is a scammer. City staff say complaints from Downtown Salmon Arm included one citizen being sworn at and followed down the street when they didn’t give money; a panhandler found sleeping on a bench with pants down exposing himself; panhandlers sitting on a bench all day that could be used by customers; and several businesses saying panhandlers make their customers uncomfortable.
Owning a small business is tough at the best of times. The last thing business people downtown need is someone discouraging customers.
Some city councillors have said the reason for drafting the bylaw is simply to get public input; a public hearing will take place Aug. 13. The report concludes by saying city staff remain concerned about the city’s ability to enforce the bylaw.
For good reason.
While well-intentioned, Salmon Arm can do so much better than an expensive and probably unenf0rcable bylaw that is based on expanding the divide between people, between “haves and have-nots,” between “us and them.”
Rather than spending big dollars at city hall to create a law that emphasizes differences rather than connections, what we need is to get serious about providing more shelters and supports for people who find themselves spending their days sitting on hard concrete holding cardboard signs.
We should all feel uncomfortable at the sight of panhandlers. They’re a stark example of the places where we as a society are failing our fellow citizens and need to do more.