Have approaches to the homeless changed?

Stakeholders reflect five years after anti-panhandling campaign

In 2012, the Downtown Winnipeg BIZ launched what it described in a press release as an “anti-panhandling campaign.”

It encouraged people to refrain from giving change to panhandlers but instead to donate to skills, training and employment programs, such as the BIZ’s “Change for the Better” campaign.

Stefano Grande, the CEO of the Downtown Winnipeg BIZ, who has been with the organization for over 10 years, says the campaign was motivated by a need to raise awareness of the many organizations serving the homeless.

Grande says the BIZ heard that “people wanted to give, but they don’t know how.”

Michelle Bacon is a downtown resident who worked in the area at the time of the BIZ campaign, which included street-level ads and posters in business windows.

“I was just really struck when I saw it ... (it is a) very hostile thing, and I was honestly shocked to see it coming from Winnipeg,” Bacon says.

Bacon doesn’t see a shift in attitudes among people she works with. Many feel panhandling makes them unsafe downtown, yet many panhandlers are very timid, she says.

In 2015, a variety of organizations partnered together to conduct a point-in-time count of the homeless population. The result, known as the Winnipeg Street Census, found that not all homeless Winnipeggers are panhandlers or are even unsheltered all times.

This census, conducted on the night of Oct. 25, 2015, found 132 individuals unsheltered on that specific day. This can mean they stayed in a public space, like a bus shelter, or they walked around at night. In addition, 347 people were counted as staying in emergency shelters, and 921 were described as “provisionally accommodated,” which means they were in insecure housing situations.

Of the people who answered income-related questions during the Street Census, 18.2 per cent reported that they gained income from informal employment, which includes panhandling.

Kevin Freedman is an instructor with the University of Winnipeg’s Faculty of Business and Economics. He was part of the homeless service sector from 2001, and, until a few months ago, was a crisis worker with the Main Street Project.

Freedman says he’s noticed a shift over the past decade in how service providers approach homelessness.

“The way that we engage with the clientele that we serve (is now) with the idea that we’re going to get people into a place that they can call their own as quickly as possible,” Freedman says.

Freedman, emphasizing that he agrees with the principle of the BIZ’s 2012 campaign and doesn’t speak on behalf of any organizations, says there were “challenges” in how it was rolled out.

It may have reinforced negative perceptions of panhandlers, despite the BIZ’s careful messaging, Freedman says.

Grande says the BIZ would not consider a similar campaign today. He adds the BIZ’s current focus is “advocating for comprehensive solutions, pushing for policies and funding to create Housing First, supportive housing, advocating for systems to change.”

An example of the BIZ’s current approach to interacting with the homeless community today is their CHAT program, which involves outreach workers who talk to and connect the homeless with social services.

Published in Volume 72, Number 1 of The Uniter (September 7, 2017)

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