homeless by caremeter

Photos by Andrew Tan.

Have you heard of Peterborough’s care meters? There are three dotted around the downtown core, looking like regular parking meters, but with a sign that suggests you give change to the meter instead of panhandlers, which will then go towards local services.

The meters were installed in Fall 2011 after a suggestion by the Downtown Business Improvement Area (DBIA) to the City, following the example of other municipalities. When asked about the care meters, many community members were unaware they existed.

“They have not been an effective enough tool to affect changes to panhandling as many would like to see it,” said Manager of Social Services for the City of Peterborough, Linda Mitchelson.

“The use of care meters has declined a bit,” she said, citing the loss of novelty. “The attention has dropped off. It was never seen as a big fundraising effort, [though they’re] still helping people out.”

The initiative was brought about over concerns about panhandling in the downtown area and a desire to better educate citizens on issues that result in panhandling.

Mitchelson explained that the primary initiative was an information campaign: “The other part of the project was we developed a poster and brochure.”

The DBIA and other organizations have spent the last few months communicating back and forth for a general review of the care meters. The possible next step would be to either to “expand and create more of a media campaign, or do something different.”

Executive Director of the DBIA Terry Guiel said they could improve the care meter initiative by increasing publicity. However, he continued to say, “I would be hesitant to invest further in a program that shows little return or public buy-in.”

The group is looking to other cities to guide the approach to panhandling in Peterborough, including considering the enforcement approach. However, Mitchelson would prefer to use other methods of tackling the root causes, such as “a public education campaign which would work with social programs on behalf of other agencies.”

“It may or may not have created the intended goal of providing an alternative way of giving but it shows some have believed in the purpose,” said Guiel. “We still see panhandling so it hasn’t ‘curbed’ the activity and it hasn’t provided the finances suitable enough to make a difference. Our Christmas parking promotion in comparison, which allows free parking downtown with all parking proceeds (if people put money in the parking meters), generated $64,835.21 since 2003 with those proceeds going to Kawartha Food Share. That’s money that can be turned into good works.”

Mitchelson said from Fall 2011 – 2012 (the first year the care meters were installed), they raised just under $1000. Guiel stated the care meters have made $1,552.55 so far.

“We don’t have statistics on panhandling,” said Mitchelson, “[But the care meters] haven’t had a significant effect on the numbers.”

However, she said that to some, panhandling has become a more visible issue. “We have lost significant employers and the downtown school has shifted. There’s not as much going on,” she said, implying the awareness, as opposed to the numbers of panhandlers, has actually increased.

“It’s a complicated issue. What gets lumped together under panhandling includes people on the street asking someone else for money with people whose appearance and behaviour are perceived as different, making the person uncomfortable,” explained Mitchelson.

“A problem that some people identify is getting stopped as they enter into different businesses in the downtown core in an aggressive manner. Passive panhandling” – for instance, people with a cup or hat – “is not illegal. Certainly it is a problem if people are aggressive or threatening. That is illegal. If downtown streets are not pleasant, people avoid them. This has economic consequences. Businesses lose patrons.”

“Merchants say it has devastating effects on their businesses and, in turn, the employees who rely on those paycheques (many in the working poor category),” Guiel explained. “Slow business caused by frightened shoppers not wanting to come downtown ends up costing them hours or their job.”

“Shoppers and the public say it makes downtown look and feel unsafe and run down. They avoid the downtown out of fear and intimidation and this hurts the merchants,” Guiel reported. “Many shoppers complain to us that they have been verbally abused by panhandlers or have had aggressive dealings with them. To others, it is all a ‘perception’ of a run-down, crime-ridden, dangerous downtown because they see panhandlers and they ‘associate’ the two.”

Care Meter 2

How significant is the number of aggressive panhandlers?

“Most are of the passive variety,” Mitchelson stated, but furthered, “[The police] don’t keep separate numbers of panhandling disturbances. In the brochure, we will try to bring forward that you don’t have to tolerate someone else’s behaviour if it is threatening.

“Panhandling is one of the top two issues brought up to me and one of the top reasons businesses that close in the downtown say as to the reason they are closing,” Guiel commented. “Some suggest that panhandlers are an ‘in-your-face’ reminder of what, collectively, we are not doing right as a society and a city.”

In terms of a plan moving forward, “I would like to see us try to do something more actively, with the care meters as a piece of the strategy and more public education around the circumstances that lead people to feel the need to panhandle. There’s a real lack of income and a lot of individual issues,” said Mitchelson, also citing mental health and addictions.

“Everyone assumes money can fix the problem and although I am no expert, it’s safe to say mental health and addiction issues can’t always be solved with money or helpful agencies and programs,” Guiel said. “Another big issue I hear from police and agencies is that the person who everyone feels needs certain help needs to want the help.”

Mitchelson believes in a “holistic approach to the problem” and to see “all partners – police, social agencies, business owners – to work together as part of a strategy.”

“If part of the concern is that there are some people in the downtown not seen as doing anything productive, is there a way we can better engage those people in something they’ll find meaningful for them? A positively engaged community is less likely to offend,” Mitchelson suggested. “It’s a win-win. Decreased panhandling and improved someone’s life.”

“We must be careful not to further marginalize those that have already faced years of marginalization,” stated Guiel, “But that respect and understanding needs to go both ways and include the merchants who are affected. People need to be reminded that it is a complex issue and that is difficult. Many come up with what they feel are quick and easy solutions or comments on how to stop it. It’s far too complex when you deal with economic issues, mental health issues, crime issues, addiction issues and what many tend to ignore, basic human rights.”

“Do we just want to get people off the street or actually improve [their lives]?” Mitchelson asked.

She stated as well that the money from the care meters goes to the Lighthouse Drop-In Centre, run by the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA). “It seemed to be the one that had the most casual interface for people on the street.”

CMHA HKPR [Haliburton, Kawartha, Pine Ridge] received $195 in funds in December 2012 and $277.05 in June of 2013,” said Kerri Davies, Manager of Development for CMHA.

“The final payment for 2013 has not yet been received. The funding is used to provide food for the Lighthouse as we have no budget for food at all. Almost all of the food comes from Kawartha Food Share.”

“Housing is a real challenge for a number of people who aren’t actually ‘homeless’,” said Mitchelson, going on to say that people could be living on the street, couch surfing, going to shelters, or even have a room, but that takes up most of their income.

Here, the City of Peterborough has made progress, as they’ve created a 10-year Housing and Homelessness Plan, making a more coordinated approach on these issues.

Mitchelson explained that the project began by assessing need, finding there were 10 thousand problems in terms of affordability, 5000 people in severe need, and 900 unique individuals seeking emergency shelters over the course of the year. The seasonal amount of people on the streets are a fairly small number in comparison.

Some have a “long-term, chronic problem. Those are the individuals other ways of doing business serves to support. [We work] to move them into some sort of transitional housing. The municipality is working along with the goal.”

In terms of addressing panhandlers on the street, Mitchelson suggested individuals acknowledge the person, tell them you are not going to give them any money, but treat them with respect.

“There is a system of services and supports and I encourage giving money towards that,” said Mitchelson.

Still, she added, “People have to make their own choices whether to give to services, the person, or buy the person coffee or a meal. As long as there can be some understanding, treat the person with respect and dignity.”