Alberta government’s new plan to discourage people from giving money to panhandlers and give to agencies instead

Anti-panhandling poster, Calgary Downtown Association

by Stephen Gaetz, Homeless Hub

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.

Check the research out on the Homeless Hub if you want to know the facts.

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.

The following editorial comment is not part of Stephen Gaetz original article.

Christian Charity

Stephen Pate – Alberta’s political ethic seems to forgotten the message of Christian charity taught by Jesus Christ in Matthew chapter 25

“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. 32Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. 33And he will place the sheep on his right, but the goats on the left. 34Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. 35For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’ 37Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? 38And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? 39And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’ 40And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers,f you did it to me.’