August 13, 2007

How Should Vancouver Deal with Violent Panhandlers?

Recent news stories have reported violent attacks by homeless people. This is disturbing on several levels.

Of course, my heart goes out to the victims of this violence. Society should help those people first, immediately, as they are the obvious victims of crime in that moment.

However, in addition to providing that immediate relief to them, we must also look at circumstances that helped to create the conditions in which the violence arose. This may get muddy and vague on an individual basis, but might be easier to identify when detected as part of a larger urban trend.

For example, Mr. Homeless Jones beats on a more vulnerable person, takes their money and blames their behaviour on a lousy upbringing, or some mental illness. At street level, it becomes a criminal/legal matter which prosecutes the offender and seeks some restitution for the victim (in theory). Law enforcement also has a vested interest in seeking the contributing factors, as an aid to prevention or mitigation.

But if there's seen to be an upsurge in the numbers of crimes caused by homeless people, what larger scale patterns are contributing? Drug addiction? Mental illness? Desperate poverty? Doctors, social service workers and law enforcement all are aware of these factors.

I have in the past become familiar with a few street people - folks who beg for money every day - and over the past five or ten years, I have never experienced any violence of any kind, and have only ever had someone get "in my face" once. I have rarely felt threatened. Nonetheless, everyone must make their own judgments about other people, and about how safe they feel personally.

A few of my close friends recently mentioned the news stories about violent beggars to me. They just read the headline to me out loud, and I swear I can detect a bit of an "I told you it was dangerous" tone of voice from them. To me, this is just an indication of their own fear and concern for their own safety, which, while I respect their point of view, does not dissuade me in the least. If I was going to get attacked by someone, there have been lots of other circumstances under which it might have happened and did not, like in the Downtown East side just walking down the street, on the grounds or in the wards of Riverview when I was used to visit my Mother, or in many other places. The homeless or mentally ill do not scare me too much. I think they're the ones who need the most help. They're at the bottom of the food chain, getting beaten up for scraps by bigger badder people. It's the gang members or crime-oriented people, who live well hidden within the lower and middle class - the social and economic predators who have all their faculties and coping skills down to a fine art and know how to effectively camouflage themselves inside the beats of everyday society - those people are the real danger, not the poor, brain damaged bastard who is trying to scrape together fifteen bucks for a bed for the night.

My heart goes out to the elderly gent who was beaten up for not giving his homeless acquaintance a few bucks. From what I've heard, this old gent had been helping this guy in his own way for quite some time. I just hope that the "crime and punishment" approach isn't used indiscriminately as a blanket answer or to in effect, punish street beggars for being on the street.

I believe the biggest reasons behind these problems are:
  • Increasing numbers of mentally ill people who are not under proper care. (Inadequate facilities? What will replace large institutions like Riverview? Are current facilities and programs adequate? What role do the Provincial Government and the Health Care providers play in this?)
  • Huge drug addiction problems throughout the downtown Vancouver core, and growing out into the surrounding municipalities. (Where are the rest of the pillars in the "four pillars approach"?)
I sincerely hope the mainstream media discusses the broader, larger issues, and helps to educate people on the big picture, and doesn't just fan the flames of fear and discontent, which would just lead to NIMBYism.

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