The writer Anatole France once observed, “the law, in its magnificent equality, forbids rich and poor alike from sleeping under bridges and begging for bread in the streets.” In rookie mayor Sam Katz’s new Winnipeg, we now have achieved the same magnificent equality. In a recent vote at Winnipeg City Council, a new by-law was adopted forbidding panhandling within the vicinity of “captive” audiences: bus stops, banks and ATMs, parking lots and parked cars, indoor public walkways, elevators and outdoor patios. This step effectively fulfills Mayor Katz’s entire anti-poverty program advanced in the course of his election campaign just over one year ago.
This step was taken in response to intense lobbying from Winnipeg’s downtown business community, who constructed a scenario in which about 50 “aggressive” panhandlers are viewed as the major obstacle to revitalization of our downtown.
While there is a limited truth to the argument that a small group of substance abusers behave in a manner that is often intimidating, this by-law goes way beyond the realm of reasonable response, targeting the innocent “non-aggressive” panhandler along with the others. It ignores the need for implementating effective social programs that can deal with the problem of substance abuse and programs that can pull people out of poverty conditions so desperate that they have to beg to stay alive. It also ignores the fact that we already had in place by-laws and criminal code provisions available to the police to deal with acts that would be more properly described as muggings rather than panhandling.
In his presentation to City Council, Police Chief Jack Ewatski complained that it was difficult to enforce existing laws because too much time and effort was taken up investigating and justifying potential charges. The new by-law would allow the police to avoid the inconvenience of having to actually investigate the “crime” by simply allowing them to arrest and charge anybody asking for anything within the newly designated no-begging zones with penalties of up to $1,000 or six months in jail. In the face of criticism, the chief suggested that this new by-law would be used more as an educational tool than as a means of aggressively prosecuting the poor.
Now we either have a law that the police will not really enforce, which made it totally unnecessary, or we have a law that will be applied in an unfair and discriminatory manner against people who are visibly poor. So, a businessman in an Armani suit needs a quarter for a pay phone and asks for it in the vicinity of a bus stop, it is likely the “crime” will be ignored. But if a seedily dressed single parent who has just been unjustifiably cut off welfare and is trying to get some money for food for her kids (and I have had clients in that situation) holds out a cup and a sign asking for spare change too close to a no-begging zone, and even one citizen (perhaps Mayor Katz himself) complains about her very presence, she will be subject to be, and likely will be, arrested and charged, especially if she refuses an order to move out of the no-begging zone. In effect, visible poverty has been criminalized.
In response, the Public Interest Law Centre, the National Anti-Poverty Organization and a number of local organizations are pursuing a Charter of Rights challenge against this piece of regressive legislation, and a number of people in Winnipeg are examining options in pursuing a civil disobedience campaign to challenge the new order in Winnipeg.
This article appeared in the September/October 2005 issue of Canadian Dimension (The Battle for Canadian Universities).