Panhandlers have taken to the medians near busy intersections in Burlington to beg for money, making it even more stressful for drivers already faced with heavy traffic.
Supt. Al Albano of Halton Regional Police said panhandling is a difficult issue to address.
“I can’t say with certainty why this is increasing,” he said, “but an educated guess would be because they are successful in getting money from Burlington residents.”
“I spoke to two panhandlers in August of 2017 at Guelph Line and Fairview,” he added. “I had first watched these two individuals for a short period of time and they did not go on the road to solicit, just to accept money. They solicited from the median.
“They were also well versed in the law and knew they hadn’t breached it. They advised me that they work until they make $100 each and that usually takes them about an hour-and-a-half. I was shocked at how fast they made that much money.
“I can also see why they would never leave Burlington and why more will come. I did ask them if I could refer them to any social service agencies and they politely declined. They said they were better off with the $100 each, which paid for a room for the night, food and cigarettes.”
Burlington does not currently have a panhandling bylaw, but panhandlers still can be charged by the police under certain conditions.
In December Burlington city council passed a motion directing staff to look into options for a bylaw. Mayor Marianne Meed Ward said council should have something to vote on by the spring.
“It’s dangerous for the individual looking for money and for drivers,” she said. “There’s no need for anybody to be standing out at a busy intersection. They can call 311 at Halton Region. They have emergency funding for a variety of things.”
The Bay Observer spoke to one panhandler, George (who did not want his last name used). He says he became a heroin addict as a result of some misfortune.
“I worked on construction in Toronto for 20 years until I lost my job and I was in a bad car accident,” he said. “
He now panhandles in Burlington, mostly near the intersections of Brant and Fairview Streets or Brant and Old Plains Road.
On a good day George says he could make about $80 if he stayed out from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. However, he usually goes home after collecting $20 or $30.
He survives by what he calls ‘couch-surfing’, grabbing a couch to sleep on in people’s houses in Burlington and Oakville. Some nights he stays outside.
“I don’t find it dangerous working on a median,” he said. “But I don’t come out when it’s snowing and cars are sliding, or when it’s dark. It’s just too dangerous then.”
Steve Elms, media relations officer for the Halton Regional Police, said under some circumstances a panhandler may be issued a Provincial Offence Notice under the Safe Streets Act for soliciting near a vehicle or soliciting a person in a vehicle on the roadway.
If an officer elects to charge an individual with one of these offences, it would result in a $50 offence notice (ticket) being issued, he said.
Albano said for most panhandlers at intersections, they must be performing one of two actions to be charged. The first is that they must be soliciting in an aggressive manner and the legislation outlines specific examples.
“Simply standing at an intersection with a sign does not apply. The other action is characterized as solicitation of a captive audience. This includes while on a roadway to solicit persons stopped in a vehicle. The important phrase here is “while on a roadway”.
“I agree that this could potentially be a traffic hazard but other than complaints from citizens that it may cause an accident, we have no evidence (collisions or injuries) to date, which would provide confirmation that these activities are hazardous.”
Several citizens tweeted their comments after Albano’s message was posted on the internet. One woman said some panhandlers could conceivably be earning $3,000 a month ($100 a day for 30 days) tax-free. She said that’s more than she earns by working.
Another woman wondered how many residents would support a guaranteed minimum annual income for all Ontarians so folks don’t need to beg on the streets.
Some tweeters reported seeing panhandlers getting into modern cars and carry fancing cellphones when they were finished.
On the flip side, a third woman said panhandling does not bother her at all. The panhandlers, she said, are polite, unlike squeegee kids in Toronto who are very aggressive in offering to wash your windshield when you are stopped in heavy traffic.
What makes it more dangerous is that the panhandlers often have a dog with them and drivers slam on the brakes on what is sometimes a slippery roadway, fearing the dog will come out on to the street.