Cross Country Checkup

'Nobody panhandles by choice': How panhandling bans affect the homeless

As three municipalities in B.C. enact bylaws banning panhandling — and threaten stiff fines for those ticketed — one expert says the approach is criminalizing homelessness.

As more cities ban panhandling, critics say the bylaws criminalize homelessness

As temperatures drop, some are calling on local goverments to declare a state of emergency on homelessness. However, three B.C. municipalities have amended bylaws that ban panhandling this year. (Christopher Katsarov/The Canadian Press)

When Carlos lost his job at an insurance company about a decade ago, it wasn't long before he was evicted from his Toronto home. 

Suddenly, mid-winter, he was sleeping on park benches and relying on handouts to survive.

"Sometimes, if someone doesn't have the option to panhandle, they will die," the 44-year-old said.

CBC is withholding Carlos' last name as he worries the stigma of being homeless will hurt his chances of finding work.

Though he felt too ashamed to ask for money because he felt like he was "imposing," a community of homeless panhandlers came to his rescue, generously sharing their spoils by buying him food or beer.

"When you don't know where your next meal is going to come from, or when you use drugs or alcohol to cope with life, panhandling is essential," he explained.

Since losing his insurance job, Carlos has moved into his own home and now works as an overdose prevention worker at St. Stephen’s Community House in Toronto. (Duncan McCue/CBC)

As the mercury drops across Canada, some are calling on local governments to declare a state of emergency over homelessness and a lack of affordable housing.

Some cities and towns, however, are taking a more controversial approach to sidewalk begging: banning people from panhandling.

Safe streets

Panhandling is legal in Canada, but several B.C. communities have passed bylaws in recent months under the province's Safe Streets Act, which makes it illegal for people to solicit in an "aggressive manner" and allows municipalities to create their own bylaws. 

In Maple Ridge, B.C., city council passed a bylaw in November approving a $100 fine for "aggressive" panhandling, including asking people in their cars for money, or asking for money after sundown.

In September, Quesnel, B.C., amended their nuisance bylaw to allow fines of up to $500 if people are found loitering in parts of the downtown or panhandling near bus stops. In Salmon Arm, B.C., people sitting on sidewalks asking for money can face a $50 fine

Penticton, a city in the Okanagan wine region, has its own version dubbed the "good neighbour bylaw."

Mayor John Vassilaki says the bylaw, which prohibits sitting or sleeping on the sidewalk, was a way to cope with rising complaints about panhandlers.

"We had to do something to make folks feel Penticton is not a dangerous place to be," Vassilaki told Cross Country Checkup in a phone interview. 

"We just wanted to make sure that downtown was safe for folks to come and shop."

A white man with a white moustache speaks to media.
Penticton Mayor John Vassilaki says the panhandling ban will make the city safer. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

'Good neighbour' bylaw

Vassilaki says the "good neighbour bylaw" only applies from May to September, but there's no need for enforcement this winter due to the bylaw's "great success." 

The mayor says over a hundred new units of subsidized housing was key to the city's strategy, and the majority of panhandlers have been housed or moved to other locations in the community.

"We weren't targeting the homeless," he said. 

"What we're doing is trying to make our community as safe as possible. And we are also trying to house all those people … that are less fortunate than ourselves."

However, Penticton also aggressively enforced its bylaw, engaging in a lengthy legal battle with one panhandler who failed to pay eight tickets. Paul Braun's fines totalled $145, yet the city spent almost $30,000 on legal fees to prosecute him.

Vassiliki says the city is no longer pursuing legal action against Braun.

Criminalization of homelessness

While panhandling bans may purport to be about safety, they effectively lead to the criminalization of homelessness, according to Stephen Gaetz, a York University professor and the director of the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness.

"Tickets are wielded as, basically, a weapon of law enforcement against people who obviously can't pay because they're panhandling. So what's their alternative? Should they panhandle more to pay the ticket or sell drugs?" said Gaetz

"It's an example of public policy and the use of law enforcement, I think, at its worst."

Stephen Gaetz, director of the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness, believes ticketing people for panhandling is counterproductive. (Kelly Bennett/CBC)

Gaetz conducted extensive research on the impacts of Ontario's law banning aggressive solicitation, which was passed in 1999 by the Mike Harris Conservative government.

He concluded that panhandling bans are used by governments to make the homeless less visible rather than tackle underlying social issues with comprehensive solutions.

"The problem we're trying to solve is citizen discomfort with seeing panhandlers around rather than [asking] should we address homelessness in a way that helps people and treats them with the dignity that any human being deserves," he said.

Panhandling bans like 'treating a symptom'

When Carlos was panhandling, he recalls "unkind" remarks from passersby who refused to give money, instead telling him to get a job.

"There were many nights when I wanted a shelter bed. It was very cold and I was turned away. And some of our meal programs are being slashed," he said.

'Nobody panhandles by choice,' Carlos told Cross Country Checkup host Duncan McCue. (Duncan McCue/CBC)

He says his life turned around when he was finally admitted to a drug detox program, where workers helped him find steady housing and job training.

"If the disease is homelessness, then banning panhandling is just treating a symptom," said Carlos, who suggests funds for social housing or shelter beds are more productive solutions.

Carlos was recently hired as an overdose prevention worker at St. Stephen's Community House in Toronto, and has been drug free for two months. 

Though he's now happily engaged and living in his own home, he won't be ignoring anyone who asks for spare change.

"Nobody panhandles by choice. It's something that life circumstances, cuts to social services, mental health and addiction problems have pushed us to do ... a ban could be cruel."


Duncan McCue

CBC host and reporter

Duncan McCue is host of Helluva Story on CBC Radio, and Kuper Island, an eight-part podcast on residential schools for CBC Podcasts. He is also the author of a textbook, Decolonizing Journalism: A Guide to Reporting in Indigenous Communities. Duncan is Anishinaabe, a member of the Chippewas of Georgina Island First Nation. He's based in Toronto.