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Barrie's panhandling ban harms the unhoused, says homeless man

'I tell you, it’s embarrassing. We’re not happy to be out here and that’s why we’re so grateful for those who give anything,' says man panhandling in Barrie

He’s articulate, polite, humble, 34 years old … and homeless in Barrie.

Rick (not his real name) spent part of last Thursday afternoon panhandling, carrying a cardboard sign, asking motorists for change on the ramp from Highway 400 to Bayfield Street.

“My unemployment (insurance) ran out and I couldn’t go back to work, and almost as soon as that happened I started doing this,” he told BarrieToday. “The shame and the embarrassment it took for me to get here, took a month after no more EI (Employment Insurance), and now I’ve been doing this about eight months of my year and a half of homelessness.

“I tell you, it’s embarrassing,” Rick added. “We’re not happy to be out here and that’s why we’re so grateful for those who give anything. I got a Tim Hortons card today and I’m so happy because I’m going to get a coffee and a doughnut as soon as we’re done here.”

But tougher times could be on the way when Barrie city council begins implementing its measures dealing with chronic homelessness and public safety.

These wide-ranging measures also address panhandling, drug addiction, mental health, shelter, counselling and feeding the hungry. It commits as much as $825,000 to these measures during each of the next two years.

There will be methods to prohibit payment to panhandlers on city streets, intersections and highway ramps, along with placing signs on city off-ramps to discourage panhandling or financial support for panhandlers, and instead encourage donations to the local social service agencies.

“It would mean an extremely hard day,” Rick said of a panhandling ban. “It’s going to mean a lot of struggling and suffering for us out here.

“I’m relatively new to this and I’m experiencing this amount of hardship,” he added. “My friends that I’ve met, being homeless, they are some of the best people I’ve ever met. They’ve been doing this five or six years and I don’t know how they do it. I can’t imagine what they’re going to do without this little bit of change, if that, daily.”

Rick says most homeless people who panhandle do it because they aren’t aren’t physically able to do full-time work, or able to do it for long periods of time.

And asking for change is hardly lucrative.

“You’re here all day and sometimes you make $7,” he said. “But there’s these amazing people out there who will hand over a bit of a bigger bill. And it’s funny because we all joke around about, you know, they’re being generous, but you feel bad taking it. And I mean anything over a 20 (dollar bill) when I say that.

“I always say ‘are you sure, sir?’ And they say ‘yeah’. They’re so certain in their decision,” Rick added. “That’s amazing when that happens, but what we all bank on is a little consistency in the change and we’re happy. We’re not greedy out here, you know.”

Part of council’s plan also aims to enhance public safety, and Rick says he’s unsure why that’s necessary.

“In … a year and a half doing this, I can honestly say I’ve never seen any member of the public being hurt or unsafe in any way,” he said. “I’m out here damn near every day. I’ve never seen any one of us be violent to any person, whether they’re handing money out or not.

“Ninety per cent of us smile at every car that goes by, to try to show them that we are decent people and we're not just mean-faced homeless people who don’t care about anything. I don’t really see how drivers are unsafe. Irritated? Sure.”

But it’s not just panhandling which will be under fire from council’s measures.

Barrie’s bylaws, protocols and processes could be changed to prohibit the use or distribution of tents or tarps in city parks or on public land without a permit, to prohibit the distribution of food and grocery products in public spaces without a permit and to reduce the time required to address camping in parks and the storage of goods in parks or public places.

“I’d love to go down (to the city’s bylaw enforcement office) and have a very nice, genuine sit-down with them and ask them where could we go, where it can just be safe,” Rick said. “Because some of us don’t like the violence involved, some of us don’t like the thefts and whatnot, and we tend to hug together, if there can be something arranged.

“A lot of us are willing to do it and follow any rules that they have.”

Rick says he’s turning 35 in about a month and has been in Barrie for about eight years.

“I had it good for a long time and so many of us have different reasons why we are where we are at,” he said. “Right now, I’m in a position where if I put my foot forward, I can get out of this situation. I really don’t see myself having to do this for much longer, but there are people who can’t physically get out of this situation.”

Rick says he spoke to BarrieToday, during his panhandling time on the Highway 400/Bayfield ramp, to help his friends.

“The other people are waiting in line to panhandle, because we’re actually not animals — we take turns, we give each person 20 minutes and if you make nothing, hey, you wait another turn,” he said. “We don’t fight over the time periods. We try to be as fair as we can, so when I tell them about this they’re going to think that maybe somebody will hear this who has ears that matter to us.”

Exactly when city council will change the panhandling laws — not only for the highway ramps but in other parts of the city, such as downtown Barrie — has not been determined.

The Ontario government has established provisions to prohibit aggressive panhandling under the Provincial Safe Streets Act. The city’s bylaw governing the use of public property contains a provision under Section 9 that may relate to some instances of panhandling, depending on the circumstance.

It reads: "No person shall block, interfere with or otherwise impede the passage of any pedestrian on any city sidewalk or other city pedestrian-way, or portion thereof, unless authorized by the city."

The Downtown Barrie BIA’s website says panhandling on public property is considered legal unless the panhandler is threatening physical harm, obstructing your path, using abusive language, following you along your walk (not staying stationary and allowing you to pass), intoxicated or keeps asking after you’ve already declined.

No one is allowed to panhandle at a bank machine, payphone or public washroom, public transit stop or taxi stand, on a public transit vehicle, while you are getting in or out of your private vehicle, in a parking lot or if you are in your vehicle on the road.