Saskatoon has been in an uproar over the suggestion the city spend $40,000 to remove the benches in the vicinity of the McDonald’s restaurant on Second Avenue and 22nd Street because people are loitering there all day.
Police officers and business owners with whom I have spoken have real concerns about the street corner. I have seen a couple of drug deals take place there, and there have been reports of violence and harassment of passersby.
Both the police and the Community Support Officers have done some good work to try to manage the problem. Over many lunch hours I have seen a police officer standing there. When the McDonald’s on Second Avenue becomes a police beat, it may be time to do something.
The problem with removing the benches is that it doesn’t accomplish what it is intended to do. I have gone into that McDonald’s over many lunches (Don’t tell my wife. She sent me to work with a salad). The staff is courteous and polite, and McDonald’s provides free coffee refills and sells a lot of soda for $1.
The combination of a friendly staff, free coffee, cheap soda and a centralized location where people can come to meet their friends have turned the restaurant into a downtown drop-in centre. I know people who come from miles away to meet their friends there daily. I am pretty sure that is not the business plan McDonald’s intended.
When you toss in the low fence in the neighbouring parking lot, the location lends itself to loitering. The solution isn’t to remove the benches, or to legislate behaviour. Other cities have learned it doesn’t work. Toronto has given out hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines to the poor and homeless. Numerous American cities have banned people from sitting on the sidewalks. Denver has made it illegal to be homeless by banning urban camping.
It’s the wrong approach. When you have nothing, what is the deterrent effect of a fine? Toronto’s inability to collect any of those fines shows that its policy is a huge failure.
The solution is to deal with the real issue. There are people in Saskatoon who are so far below the poverty line that to them, simple poverty looks like a welcome step up. Many are getting less in social assistance for rent than what their rent costs. Part of their rent has to come out of their living allowance – money that is supposed to be for food.
When people have very little, they at least want to be around their friends. These groups self-organize and find a place to meet. In this case it has become the downtown restaurant. Getting rid of the benches or even the entire McDonald’s won’t change that. They will organize and find somewhere else to meet.
Do we get rid of the benches on 21st Street or shut down the food court at the Midtown Plaza next?
Other growing cities have adopted drop-in centres. It’s not a new concept, as we have had them for youth and teens for decades. This needs to happen downtown for adults. An agency needs to step up and work with the city and downtown neighbours to create a space where people want to come, and at the same time works for neighbouring businesses. It isn’t easy, but as I have seen in visiting great drop-ins from coast to coast, it is possible to find that balance.
It takes a place where people can be warm on cold days, cool on hot days, and have something to drink, a bite to eat, and even some Internet access. From what we have learned in Saskatoon, cheap pop, coffee and hamburgers seem to be the formula people want. Just make sure they have a chance to meet their friends there.
Saskatoon has a downtown full of energy. People want to work, socialize and play there. We all want to be where the action is, regardless of our income. Other cities have learned that drop-in services need to be downtown, because that is where the people are going to congregate.
While this is a local problem, it’s also a reflection of provincial policies. Social Services needs to move beyond merely writing cheques and realize that it has a role to play in issues like this in cities and towns across Saskatchewan.
It was encouraging to see city council’s planning and operations committee look beyond the easy solution and realize there are much more complicated factors at play. Let’s see if council and the provincial government have the political will to address them.
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