Nfld. & Labrador

St. John's panhandling rush brings 'travellers' from outside N.L.

It's not only the vacationers who visit St. John's during the summer, the province's peak tourism season.

'A smile and a bit of respect goes a long way,' Gaylynne Gulliver says

St. John's has seen an increase in the number of panhandlers on downtown streets, says the Downtown St. John's organization. (Zach Goudie/CBC)

This summer once again saw an influx of travelling panhandlers coming to St. John's from other parts of the country, and it's important to talk about how the city can best address the situation, says Gaylynne Gulliver of Downtown St. John's.

In her role as the organization's public relations manager, Gulliver hears a lot from local business owners about what she calls a "proliferation" of panhandling downtown, as well as in other areas of the city.

"In the summer, because of the travellers, the amount of people on the street seems to peak," she told CBC's St. John's Morning Show.

With a reputation as a friendly city, and frequent cruise ship stops, Gulliver said word travels fast about the streets of St. John's being a lucrative place for panhandling during the city's tourism season.

She said St. John's has no panhandling regulations that would lay out where and how panhandlers are allowed to conduct their activities. Bylaws that she said are in place in other cities and town prohibit approaching people at banks or while they're getting in or out of a car, or a taxi.

Gaylynne Gulliver says in an increasingly cashless society, people who don't have change to offer can still show panhandlers respect by simply acknowledging them. (Marie-Isabelle Rochon/CBC)

'A very complex issue'

Gulliver said the joint Downtown St. John's-city council committee, consisting of senior city staff and some sitting councillors, has been discussing ideas on how to curb the number of people who are panhandling.

Those discussions include talking with groups like Thrive, Choices for Youth and the Gathering Place for insight on how the city and groups like Downtown St. John's can help get people the things they need to get off the streets.

People want to do the thing that is kind and caring and respectful, but sometimes we don't know what that looks like.- Ellie Jones

Thrive is working with the city on a new project that aims to lay out a framework for responding to panhandling as a community, said Ellie Jones, the organization's director of outreach and education.

"It's really about creating a collective understanding of what the reality of the lives are like for all people in our community," Jones said.

The work involves looking at approaches taken by communities around the world to identify the ones that might work in St. John's, and about educating the public on why people panhandle and how they can best be supported.

"People want to do the thing that is kind and caring and respectful, but sometimes we don't know what that looks like," she said.

A complex issue

Gulliver said she recognizes the topic is a sensitive one.

"We have to be careful. We don't want to vilify the poor — this is a very complex issue," she said.

"We understand that there's some mental health issues, there's some addictions issues, there's low-income issues."

Many people on the streets are dealing with issues like trauma that can make it difficult for them to hold onto jobs and support systems or contribute to addiction, said Amnesty Cornelius, a research and stakeholder co-ordinator at Thrive. However, some people find themselves panhandling a last resort for many for reasons people might not expect, she said.

"Even someone who just loses their job suddenly can very easily end up in a difficult situation where they need supplemented income," Cornelius said.

Gulliver said she would like to see some regulations introduced about where people can ask for money.

"There's a lot of mom and pop shops down here, and the people who run these business depend on customers coming in the door," Gulliver said.

"They have rights too, so if there is issues with panhandling that's impeding customers from entering into their establishments, we definitely want to address them."

But most important, she said, is looking at how to provide people in need with assistance, she said.

"Some way to help them meet their needs, get help, or whatever it is, and get them off the street, then that helps all of us."

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

With files from Gavin Simms and Adam Walsh