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Boyle Street Community Services is one of many organizations in Edmonton providing support to the homeless.  (Jasmine Graf)

To give or not to give?

How to approach panhandlers in Edmonton:
‘Treat them as a human’
By Jasmine Graf

ROAMING THE streets of downtown Edmonton, we often encounter the homeless, holding cardboard signs and asking for change. While there are many ways to respond to them, it ultimately depends on the situation.

In 2017, the Edmonton Police Service rolled out an anti-panhandling campaign to encourage people to give to community programs, rather than handing out change on the street. EPS spokesperson Scott Pattison says this was because of certain aggressive panhandlers, who were approaching vehicles and even banging on car windows.

“We were seeing more and more complaints coming in around the city at very busy intersections, where people were panhandling,” he says. “And some to a more aggressive level than others. Not only was it causing pedestrian issues, we were foreseeing possible collisions occurring because people were walking in between traffic sometimes.”

panhandling eps

The Edmonton Police Service’s panhandling campaign is aimed at protecting motorists from panhandlers at busy intersections.  (Courtesy of EPS)

In hopes of limiting these dangerous instances, the police erected multiple signs saying: “Donate to organizations that can help. Not to panhandlers.”

The signs direct people to call the city’s 2-1-1 line, which connects them with agencies that accept donations, such as Boyle Street Community Services on 105th Avenue downtown.

“Edmonton is one of the most compassionate communities I’ve had the fortune to live in because people want to step up and help so many different causes,” Pattison says. “So, what we wanted to do was give them options whereby they can still help out these individuals.”

While the initiative is primarily aimed at protecting motorists from aggressive panhandlers at intersections, it is also partly to ensure that donations will go directly towards basic necessities.

“There are many instances where these individuals have addictions, sadly,” Pattison says. “And they’re not trying to raise money for clothing or shelter. It’s to support addictions such as alcohol or drugs.”

However, not everyone who begs for change is doing so aggressively or with bad intentions, says Elliott Tanti, communications and development manager for Boyle Street.

“I think that is an unfair characterization of what people are using that money for. It is extremely demoralizing to be in a position where you have to ask others for support. To get to that point usually means a very serious level of desperation and people should be mindful of that.”

Ultimately, how to approach panhandlers is up to one’s own discretion. Tanti recommends at least acknowledging the individual asking for help, whether it’s offering to pay for a meal, sparing a small amount of change or simply lending a smile.

“First and foremost, treat people with respect, even if you don’t have the means or the capacity to provide change for that individual that day. The least you can do – and our expectation – is that you treat that individual with respect.

“Treat them as a human.”

For anyone who prefers making donations directly to programs that support the homeless, Tanti adds that Boyle Street is happy to accept them. The money will go towards purchasing warm clothes and food, as well as supporting programs for mental wellness, harm-reduction and housing.

“Every dollar counts, and it helps to provide supports and programs for people to break the cycle of poverty.”

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