Friday, September 30, 2011

Safe streets for street people: ONEdmonton Forum on Crime and Safety

Two days ago I gave a brief talk to a group of Edmonton’s business, policy, and policing leaders. I presented some preliminary thoughts about my research on Edmonton streets. The theme of the forum was crime and safety.  The other speakers included leaders from the Edmonton Police Service, REACH Edmonton, and Edmonton’s Police Commission.

I spoke about the topic of safety through the prism of my ongoing fieldwork concerning disorder policing as it is experienced on the street. While it is common to view safety as a matter of protecting the public from those on the street – a point that was evident in the Deputy Police Chief’s presentation which talked briefly of broken windows policing and featured many images of police interacting with street persons – I tried to flip this on its head and focus on the safety of street people. I did this by discussing the way the City of Edmonton is responding to panhandling through the Public Places Bylaw and the IntegratedPanhandling Advisory Committee. I asked: What are the safety concerns of street people? Do the city’s responses ensure their safety?
Focusing on the safety of street people is of utmost importance because they are among those most likely to be violently victimized. Additionally, the street population is a very diverse group and ought not to be uniformly painted as “dangerous”. Rather, many of those I  spoke with are actually relying on informal economic activities (panhandling, bottle picking, and street news vending) in an effort to survive without committing crime or causing harm to others.  

The central argument I made was that current responses to panhandling can, in some cases,  create their own safety  concerns for all street people. A number of stories I have collected demonstrate that the anti-aggressive-panhandling bylaw is being used to fine anyone authorities think has been panhandling, regardless of the manner in which the supposed panhandler seeks aid. In fact, in some instances police, transit officials, and security are using the bylaw to move-along (i.e., tell to go elsewhere, load-up and take elsewhere, or ban) any person who looks as if he or she might be a panhandler. That is, the bylaw is being used to displace any person who looks poor or homeless.

The fines create their own safety concerns because individuals do not have the means to pay them and instead must serve the time in jail. This contributes to the overcrowding and dangerous conditions of jail, and puts them in contact with other marginalized persons who might be more seriously involved in criminal activity.

Move-alongs can also create safety concerns because they do not consider the city from the perspective of those who live on its streets. One of the most important findings I came across was that many street people feel safe in their familiar areas. To stay safe on the streets, many people make friendships or acquaintances with other street people and engaging in a culture of sharing where they look after one another. These street circles frequently have strong spatial anchors. Forcing people outside of their familiar territories, means that they are frequently pushed into unfamiliar areas where they do not have “ins” with other street circles. As such they are potentially put in harm’s way. Moreover, constantly trying to expel street people from particular areas means that they can only fulfill their basic human need for rest only in those regions where homeless persons have become normalized parts of the landscape. In Edmonton, these areas are overwhelmingly in the neighbourhoods of McCauley and Boyle, where many of the city’s social service agencies and shelters are concentrated. Concentrating marginalized and desperate people there means that these areas become less safe and leave some marginalized persons vulnerable to serious criminals. Finally, attempting to displace most street people, regardless of what they are doing, has led many of the street-involved to feel as though police and security are there to expel them and not to help them. The streets can be violent when people leave their familiar areas and circles. Many street people I met encountered violence, yet only one of these people reported their victimization to police. Upon reporting, however, the individual did not receive any help because police assumed the person, known to live on the streets, was causing trouble. Without investigating the matter, the officers felt that the victimization was justified. It is unsurprising, then, that very few street people trust police or feel they can rely on them. Because some people know that street people seldom turn to authorities, it leaves those on the street particularly vulnerable.  
I closed by arguing that these findings demonstrate that the panhandling provisions of the Public Places Bylaw ought to be revoked. Its intent was to target aggressive panhandling. The aggressive behaviours that were outlawed were already covered under existing laws. Adding “panhandling” to these provisions has only re-created a status offence that targets poor persons who look like panhandlers. I also concluded that the practice of taking people elsewhere ought to stop unless the officials can collect proof of consent.

In place of police and security responses, some of the social service responses to homeless persons (including those suggested by the Integrated Panhandling Advisory Committee) need to be ramped up, adequately funded, and make to match street peoples’ experiences. Existing services must become safer for street people and their belongings. More importantly, efforts must be made to graft social service provision onto the way many street circles have divided the city. There is huge need for a social service agency on the south side of the river because many south side interviewees perceived the existing downtown locations as unsafe. The Edmonton Do Likewise Society is making efforts in this regard, but is having some difficulty accumulating resources and property.
In addition to service centres throughout the city, a another step forward would be to expand outreach activities. The city is currently working on plans for city-wide outreach. This outreach, however, must bring services to the people and not try to bring people to the service centres. It should not be delivered by persons connected to policing agencies and it must be willing to tailor programming to individuals’ needs, patiently build trust, and provide a sole contact to help people meet their various needs. Furthermore, outreach efforts to date tend to focuses too narrowly on the individual. There are opportunities to improve programming by recognizing the street persons are social beings with their own street ties, families, and circles.

Finally, one of the biggest steps forward, in my opinion, is to better include street persons in the development, delivery, and evaluation of services. A predominate hope for many persons I spoke to was that one day they would be able to help others escape the street. Inviting some of the street-involved to design and lead programming is a model that works because it rewards street people with meaningful income and employment, while ensuring that their views are directly present. I have been involved with and researched a number of youth justice initiatives that take this approach (e.g., Urban Games and Youth Uncensored) and they can be hugely successful, especially if efforts are made to continually re-assess how meaningfully the inclusion of those previously excluded really is.

In the meantime, while these alternative initiatives are built-up, a culture of increased tolerance and understanding toward street people needs to be cultivated. While the city has developed a public education campaign (called Have a Heart,Give Smart), its focus is on convincing persons to donate to charities instead of giving direct aid to panhandlers. The reasoning behind this is, in part, that providing direct aid enables addictions and prevents persons from going to the social services where they can get the help they need. Based on my research, one of the problems with this campaign is that it fails to recognize the diversity of persons who reside on the street and are forced to depend on generosity. While I have met a considerable number of people struggling with addictions, I have met just as many that are recovering from addictions, and a few that have never had substance abuse problems. Further, the campaign assumes that the location and level of services is adequate to meet the needs of those on the streets. I have found, however, that this is not the case. When it comes to including street persons in programming, a renewed public education effort, that attempts to tell the diverse stories of those on impoverished or on the street, seems like a great place to start. Who better to educate persons about street life than those who are and have been there?

(This sums the main points of the talk, and adds a few other points I did not have time to make, but feel free to read the full text by clicking here.)
Although I did not hear much from officials connected to Edmonton’s Police Service after my talk, I got some favourable responses from leaders among the policy and business circles present. I would like to extend my thanks to the Edmonton Economic Development Corporation for inviting me, and especially to John Ennis who organized the panel.
Feel free to comment or ask questions.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Research Diary Started

As promised, I am posting here to inform you that my research diary has started on the CrimeTalk website.

Follow this link to see the introductory post:

Although the blog you are currently reading gives full details about the project to participants and will provide a summary of findings once the project is complete, in the research diary you can follow the project as it unfolds. In the diary I will provide a greater discussion of some of the fieldwork issues, writing challenges, preliminary analysis, etc.

With each new diary entry I will post a link here.

Stay tuned!

Monday, May 16, 2011

Welcome - About my Panhandling Study


If you are here you have likely heard about my research through fieldwork contact, word of mouth, or one of my research advertisements. I am glad you decided to find out more! See the links on the right if you are interested in participating.

Here is the context of this study:

In the past year Edmonton has rolled-out two anti-panhandling initiatives: an anti-aggressive-panhandling bylaw and an alternative giving campaign. The alternative giving campaign is called “Have a Heart, Give Smart” and aims to encourage passersby to donate to charities instead of giving direct aid to panhandlers. Both initiatives aim to move panhandlers off the streets and into social services or courts. However, the alternative giving campaign also aims to regulate the generosity of the general public.

These initiatives, and much of the previous work in this area, assumes that panhandlers do not use social services and are universally feared by passersby. Little is known about why some people in Edmonton panhandle or give to panhandlers. Previous research tends to focus on the language of anti-panhandling laws and suggests that these laws unfold uncontested on the ground. My research builds on this work by collecting detailed stories from panhandlers and donors and using these stories to examine how panhandlers and donors experience various street encounters, how they make sense of panhandling, what effect these anti-panhandling efforts have had on them, and what they think of the city’s programs. Through interviews with panhandlers and donors this research aims to (i) collect the voices of panhandlers and donors, (ii) document how current social policy and legal responses affect the lives of panhandlers and donors, (iii) assess if the assumptions of current anti-panhandling efforts are valid, and (iv) give scholarship on panhandling real-life grounding. In the spirit of critical criminology, my primary objective is to suggest responses to panhandling that are more inclusive and reflective of the lived realities of donors and panhandlers.

Here is the context of this blog and some details about where you can find more information:

The main purpose of this blog is to aid in data collection, provide participants with information, and publicly broadcast some of the findings as per the regulations at my university. For participants, an executive summary of those findings will be available on this website in no less than approximately one year’s time (May 2012).

If you are interested in following the project’s progression, hearing about the fieldwork, discussing preliminary interpretations or methodology, I hope to complete a research diary (or separate blog) on I will post here to let you know if and when it is up and running.

If you are interested in learning more about the project you can always contact me through this page or at the contacts listed on the left. You can also view a draft short version of my project proposal by clicking here, or you can view a draft of the complete project proposal by clicking here.

You are welcome to comment on any post. Please ensure your comments are related to the research and my posts. All comments are moderated. As I am spending considerable time in the field and working on other projects, please excuse any delays in approving posts.