Go hard on graffiti vandals, be soft with panhandlers

Armchair Mayor
By Mel Rothenburger
September 9, 2017 - 8:23am

KAMLOOPS — When we’re making laws, we should think about the consequences and roots of illegal acts before we get all sanctimonious.

Laws are created to control behavior, and some behavior is worse than others. For example, I would put graffiti way ahead of panhandling on the list of bad social behavior.

These are two things that happen each and every day on the streets of our towns and cities, though one is done in back alleys and other convenient places, and the other is practiced out on our sidewalks and — as an ArmchairMayor.ca reader pointed out this week — on our medians.

Neither is on the scale of robbery, murder or even fraud, but they both need to be controlled. The question is how and to what degree.

Laws are mostly reactive. When people complain about something enough, politicians enact laws, and our police and courts try to enforce them.

Graffiti is an act of vandalism that uglifies the urban landscape, devalues property and costs the public a lot of money in prevention, enforcement and clean-up.

Panhandling is mostly annoying, though in its more aggressive forms can become a public safety issue. It’s really only an economic issue when it deters people from shopping in a particular area.

Neither is much enforced. In my view, graffiti is a far more serious transgression. It’s a deliberately illegal act in that flouting the law is a fundamental part of the culture, and spreads like a cancer through a community if not reined in. Kamloops has taken a pro-active role in this for the past 17 years.

Panhandling is an even bigger challenge to manage. It has become part of the downtown shopping experience. Trying to make a living by asking strangers for money is not generally illegal in Kamloops. As long as we stay at least 10 metres away from ATMs, liquor stores and so on, you and I could stand on the sidewalk with hat in hand and legally ask passers-by for “spare change” if we wanted to.

The traditional advice, when asked for a contribution, is to ignore it or to say no thanks and keep walking. Downtown Kamloops panhandlers are not, for the most part, aggressive. Most, in fact, are polite. Nothing to fear there.

My inclination then, is not to get too agitated about trying to ban them, fine them or load them on buses and drive them down to Kelowna.

The problem people are the drug dealers, bank robbers (way too many of them), purse snatchers (as an Australian tourist unfortunately found out on Lansdowne Street on Thursday night), and shouters and screamers who make life miserable for everybody else. Deal with those people.

The blog reader, however, raised another very important nuance to the panhandling issue. His concern is with those who sit themselves down on the medians of major thoroughfares — in this case, Columbia and Summit.

The letter raised a lively response with much advice on what to do about it.

If they’re sitting there with little hand-written signs that claim they’re trying to get from A to B and could you please help out, they’re relatively harmless. Rarely will they actively approach you at a red light and blatantly ask for money but it can happen, and if you’re sitting in your car it’s unnerving.

(And we all know about squeegee guys, but I’m not aware of any of them being around recently.)

My reader, however, points out that the same guy keeps showing up at the same spot near Columbia and Summit, and the police keep moving him out, after which he shows up again.

There’s a safety issue when it comes to soliciting in traffic, so the concern is legitimate. But it’s hard to solve. Langley has signs on medians pointing out that panhandling in traffic is illegal and dangerous. I doubt it’s any more effective than the move-‘em-out Kamloops method.

Some places have actually tried to require panhandlers to get permits. Others, including Kamloops, have reduced the number of comfortable places to sit in the downtown core.

Here’s the thing, though. The way I see it, graffiti vandals are in it for the fun. I doubt many panhandlers are. To most, it’s degrading. They need to be treated as people, not simply a problem. The trick is to sort out the scammers from the ones who genuinely need a hand or hand-out.

Hit graffiti hard. Fine the vandals bigtime when they’re caught. But panhandling isn’t about giving society the finger. It can’t be solved with tougher laws.