As sure as springtime brings green grass, it also brings complaints about downtown panhandlers.
Relatively speaking, there are only a handful of them. And, for the most part, they sit on the sidewalk with a hat or cup, sometimes with a pleading sign or mangy mutt, and generally just say “spare change” to passersby. On occasion, you will get one who offers a rude comment if you deny their benign request. Collectively, they pose little threat to the general public. I suspect they only cause psychological discomfort to the public because street people are a reminder that not all of our citizenry live the good life.
Although I am now retired, I was a 30-year working denizen of downtown, and became familiar with the regular panhandlers, each of whom had their turf staked out. Some of the panhandlers had been around for so long that they were given street names by downtown locals. One panhandling couple was nicknamed Sony and Cher (both now deceased) and their turf was the corner of 21st Street and Fourth Avenue, although occasionally they would wander across the street to where the old Dairy Queen was located.
I never gave them money, but now and then would buy them a bagged lunch. They always seemed appreciative as they noshed down the food. I can only recall one very obese woman, who staked her turf close to the corner of 21st Street and First Avenue, who could be verbally abusive. But given her physical condition, I doubt she could harm anyone. She simply solicited annoyance rather than sympathy, and consequently little revenue.
I do understand why merchants don’t want them near their establishment entries. Most shoppers don’t want to deal with these unwashed beggars and will bypass the store in order to avoid contact. It is sad to say, but these panhandlers are viewed as societal cockroaches, rather than people suffering from mental or addictive diseases or just down-on-their-luck folks. It is a sad comment about the public more so than the souls begging for help.
On the other hand, summer brings out the buskers and street entertainers also looking for cash from passersby. Somehow having a person singing or playing a musical instrument off-key is acceptable and unthreatening to the public. Maybe the solution is to give kazoos to the panhandlers and have them sing for their supper. Most assuredly, the din from these performers would cause havoc and public complaint.
In our city’s zest to have a pristine downtown is the concern surrounding the Lighthouse, an establishment that provides shelter to the poor and keeps them from being completely homeless. The residents there are largely indigent and, even if they qualify for social assistance, the amount they are allotted is not sufficient to provide food and shelter elsewhere in Saskatoon. It should be noted that the Lighthouse was there long before the South Downtown development occurred. Although it was tragic that a man on his way to the movie theatres was stabbed by a mentally ill person who was a formerly lodged at the Lighthouse, it does not mean that everyone living at this residence will do public harm. There have been other stabbings in downtown Saskatoon without the reaction this incident garnered. Remember the young man who was stabbed to death on 21st Street a few years ago when trying to break up a street fight between two delinquents? That crime didn’t provoke a call to drive out all young folks from downtown.
Aside from “away,” where do we want these people to go? The homeless and the poor congregate in busy commercial areas because it is their only hope for survival. They can beg from the masses, find shelter under bridges, in doorways or parkades, and scrounge for food in garbage cans and restaurant dumpsters. With the gentrification of Riversdale, the development of River Landing and the boom in downtown Saskatoon, some in our city are anxious to displace them from the heart of downtown, but they have nowhere to go.
To date this month, Saskatoon police report four homicides and 14 shooting incidences and that drug and gang activity is on the increase. Although Chief Clive Weighill earlier stated downtown Saskatoon is safe, he was still redeploying police resources to the downtown core to quell the public perception to the contrary. Apparently, our fear of panhandlers and the homeless is greater than our fear of thugs and street gangs. Frankly, we should be more concerned about the drunks spilling out of the bars at closing time. There have been more innocent victims resulting from drunken activity than from poor street folks.
Mayor Don Atchison’s solution to the problem is to hire more police officers to fight real crime, while our current police force monitors this unsavoury element by preventing them from annoying voters, impacting on businesses or, God forbid, from affecting tourism. This is akin to shuffling the deck chairs on the Titanic. It is not fixing the problem; it only tends to hide it or move it around to a new area, perhaps your neighbourhood.
When did Saskatoon become so white bread, so lacking in compassion and concern for its less fortunate citizens? Perhaps it is our collective guilt that makes us want to hide away that which we don’t want to see. Time to remember the adage: “There but for the grace of God go I.”