The Government of Alberta has announced its intention to put forward a plan that encourages people to refrain from giving money to panhandlers, and instead to give those resources to agencies serving people who are homeless. While many people may be annoyed at the sight of panhandlers, we need to dig a little deeper to understand what is driving this initiative. At the root of many people’s negative responses to panhandling are prejudices about homeless people, and why they panhandle in the first place. Is this same prejudice driving government policy? The Alberta Minister of Housing and Urban Affairs Jonathan Denis says: “Most people think if they are giving to panhandlers they are helping the problem, but they are hurting the problem. Almost 80% of money going to panhandlers goes to negative habits — drugs, alcohol, gambling — anything that can be destructive.”
I would argue that this kind of thinking represents policy making at its worst – driven by ideology rather than evidence. People panhandle for many reasons, most notably to put cash in their hands on a day to day basis, so they can purchase what they want and need (not all needs are supplied by shelters and drop ins, such as hygiene products, adequate food, etc.). Just like you and me, people who are homeless want to be independent and make their own choices. The notion that they should not have money because they are irresponsible speaks to a paternalistic viewpoint that we wouldn’t apply to anyone else.
A key piece of research on this topic is Making Money, by Bill O’Grady and me (1999, 2002). This research shows that most people who panhandle would much rather make money through regular jobs, but because of their poverty, they face incredible barriers in obtaining – and maintaining – employment. People panhandle so that they can earn money to meet their immediate needs, and to pay for food, clothing and yes, sometimes cigarettes or alcohol. They make choices about what they spend their money on. We might not always agree with these choices, but then, you might not agree with how I spend my money.
The views expressed by the minister above, reflect longstanding prejudices that portray people who are homeless as addicts. While there is no doubt that some people who are homeless have addictions issues (and some of them panhandle) the vast majority do not. If one is concerned about the behaviours of homeless addicts, one should really ask oneself, if you take away panhandling as a source of income, exactly where will people with addictions get their money to feed their addictions? Take away panhandling, and will people do worse and more destructive things to meet needs they can’t control – things like the sex trade, drug dealing, crime and theft?
The good news in Alberta is that there is an emerging public debate on this issue that will hopefully inform the decisions that get made by politicians and average citizens. An excellent discussion took place on the news affairs program “Alberta Prime Time”.
Both University of Calgary professor Dave Este (Social Work) and Calgary Chief Bylaw Officer Bill Bruce (Calgary Police Service) presented reasoned views supported by research. Both oppose the proposed move by the Alberta government.
The other good news is that the Calgary Homeless Foundation is conducting a new study on the money making practices of people who are homeless – this will shed light on why people who live in extreme poverty panhandle.
Good policy is supported by good evidence. Research can contribute to solutions to homelessness.