City hall was concerned enough by reports of panhandling and street activity that it commissioned a report this year to study the problem.
The comprehensive Street Activity Baseline Study was completed and sent to council in November. One issue that arose from the study is that people don’t feel comfortable in areas where there is street activity such as panhandling.
While panhandlers don’t bother me, a couple of weeks ago I noticed a large clown who was singing Eminem songs in front of Midtown Plaza, and that made me think twice before heading in to grab a coffee.
So, whether it is panhandlers asking for handouts or clowns trying to break into hip hop who are causing problems, councillors felt the need to act.
Our downtown is quite safe and getting safer, but perception is a powerful thing. If people don’t feel safe in an area, they won’t go there.
The report suggested the city build a coalition between different levels of government and social agencies to tackle some of the core issues of panhandling and street activity. It sounds good, but it takes time. To get things started, Saskatoon is taking a page from Calgary’s playbook and proposing a detachment of uniformed bylaw enforcement officers. Instead of using a weapon, they are directed to connect people to support agencies and, it is hoped, move them off the streets.
Calgary (indeed much of Alberta) has been dealing with significant homeless issues and has built up considerable capacity in its social agencies to solve the problem. Saskatoon does not have Calgary’s network of drop-in centres, outreach workers and support services for those on the street, because until recently our numbers haven’t required it.
Calgary approaches homelessness much differently, with a housing-first philosophy. People on the streets there are identified, assessed and housed as quickly as possible. Once they are housed, they are supported by caseworkers who deal with problematic behaviour.
It’s a philosophy and practice that’s in use in more than 300 jurisdictions across North America and has proven to drastically reduce problematic street activity. In many ways, street activity is as much about a lack of appropriate housing as anything else.
Saskatchewan’s service delivery model tends to encourage street activity.
Some shelters are closed during the day. Those who receive emergency social services benefits only get food and shelter, with no provision made for other needs. While a comfort allowance is provided, it comes only after intake. The mandate of Social Services here is much different than in other centres.
Funding comes from the federal government when you turn 65, which adds another level of complexity to the problem. There is even less support for seniors who have their pension checks mailed to them. The money is spent however the person sees fit.
Many are responsible and do a good job of surviving on very limited resources, but those without excellent budgeting skills find themselves quickly in need of money. The street provides a familiar way to get it.
Complicating many situations often are mental health issues. Concurrent disorders – mental health and substance abuse – make the problem much more complex. While the decision was right to close many mental health facilities in the late 1980s and let people live in the community, delivering the healthcare services they need became exponentially more complex.
Anyone who has tried to access mental health services knows how hard it can be, and how long the wait can be for non-emergency care. For someone without supports, the system is even harder to navigate. Even if an appointment is secured, getting someone from the street or with mental-health issues to help can be even more difficult than getting that appointment.
I had reservations about the approach the city is taking. The need isn’t for more uniformed bylaw officers but for more supports, a different service delivery, and probably a lot more money for mental-health care. But those areas are outside the city’s jurisdiction.
So, as much as I don’t like this approach, the city is correct to take a big step in trying to make Saskatoon streets safer and more comfortable. We’ll see if it works.
With the uniformed officers, the city is providing a tool to help people off the streets, even if there might not be a lot of places for them to go.
But for the officers to have a chance at success, they need partners.
In a culture of blaming other levels of government, it’s encouraging to see the city taking the lead.