A downtown Calgary business group and a not-for-profit agency hope to extend a program designed to reduce the panhandler population by giving them a foot forward rather than a handout.
And in Edmonton, the actions of local community groups and a revitalized downtown core have helped to curb panhandler problems in the city centre.
The Calgary Downtown Association (CDA) says it wants a summer program - run in conjunction with the Calgary Urban Project Society (CUPS) - that is designed to help panhandlers find alternatives to street life to be extended through the fall and into the winter.
"This is a problem that won't go away on its own, and it's one we feel is important to be proactive on," says Jennifer Furlotte, manager of operations for both the CDA and the Stephen Avenue Walk.
|Dave Olecko, Business Edge|
|CUPS outreach worker Sean Larsen chats with a homeless person while walking his daily beat.|
Calgary's downtown pedestrian malls - Stephen Avenue Walk (Eighth Avenue S.W.) and Barclay Mall (Third Street S.W.) - are managed by the Calgary Downtown Association.
"Ultimately a number of businesses at the street level are directly affected by panhandlers, but also a number of business employees are directly affected, too," she adds. "Lots of (panhandlers) hang out by whatever retail outlet, in whatever doorway leading into whatever building."
A recent CDA survey revealed that downtown users listed poverty issues and safety concerns as a negative factor when heading to the city core.
"There's a certain element within the panhandling population that's more aggressive than a young kid who's sitting on the corner and who just got into town and is trying to make a couple of bucks. I think it's ... the chronic panhandlers that are the biggest problem downtown."
That's why the association decided to try and educate those who are panhandling that there are alternatives to their lifestyles. It partnered with CUPS, located in the heart of downtown near the Olympic Plaza, to hire outreach worker Sean Larsen.
Larsen says his job is to make contact with the panhandlers, listen to their stories and, if possible, act as a conduit between them and the social agencies.
In many instances, he notes, the chronic cases are people with addiction problems. If they decide they want a lifestyle change and they want to make the effort, he points them in the right direction.
"A lot want to change because they realize they're not happy where they are, but whether they're willing to put the work in, that's one of the key things," Larsen says. "We've only seen one or two successes this summer and those have both come because people have been motivated to make a change and put in the work it takes."
Even though only a couple of panhandlers have left the streets, Larsen believes the program is achieving success because he's walking his beat every day and getting to know the panhandling population.
This, he says, allows him to build relationships and establish trust, "which is really important when working with this population because it's all about trust and they've been failed so many times by different agencies and different things."
Larsen says over the past three months the number of panhandlers averaged about 65.
That's an increase over a similar count over the same period two years ago when there was an average of about 45 panhandlers.
The panhandling population typically swells over the summer months as scores of people - most often teenagers - drift into the downtown, trying to earn some quick cash to help feed their addictions, Larsen adds.
Bob Bradley, owner of The Unicorn pub located on the Stephen Avenue Walk, says he's actually noticed a drop in the number of panhandlers frequenting that stretch of the avenue. He applauds the CDA's efforts to give panhandlers a hand up instead of a handout, but also credits Calgary police for stepping up patrols.
"Most aren't a problem, and you see the ones selling (Street Talk, a newspaper published by CUPS that highlights poverty and homeless issues in Calgary) and they're not asking for money," Bradley says. "But a few can become aggressive, and I can tell the (police) officers about a problem and they'll handle the situation."
In the heart of Edmonton, meanwhile, panhandlers have not been a major issue for business owners, says Jim Taylor, executive director of the Downtown Business Association of Edmonton (DBA).
"I don't think that it is a huge problem or an escalating problem, any more than anything else is an escalating problem in all the cities in Canada or the rest of North America; it sort of goes with the ebb and flow on a societal basis," Taylor says.
Taylor says on Vancouver's Robson Street, for example, there are many more panhandlers than found on Jasper Avenue, "but there's also 50,000 people down there so the problem is diluted in that you don't see it.
"One of the ways of mitigating the problem is to have more people on your streets, and of course we're blessed in the downtown where we have this incredible regrowth of the residential downtown ... our population is on its way to tripling over the period of a decade in a very small area and that puts more people on the street and that mitigates the problem.
"It doesn't solve it, it mitigates it in that it takes away the fear factor if you're not by yourself on a block where there may be a group that's panhandling and hassling people."
Taylor also credits Edmonton community policing efforts for dealing with panhandlers who become intimidating, as well as non-profit agencies that address the social causes of homelessness.
Hope Hunter, the executive director of Boyle Street Community Services Co-op, says most people as a rule - be they business owners, shoppers or those putting on special events - are not bothered with panhandlers.
It's when they become aggressive that it becomes a problem.
The non-profit group has youth workers who will respond when a panhandler starts to get out of hand. Hunter says that often just talking to the person can diffuse a difficult situation.
"A lot of times it's a matter of explaining to them, 'Ernie, it's OK to panhandle, but it's not OK to go up to people in restaurants when they're eating,'" she says.
A program that the co-op operates along with the DBA, called the Green Team Project, targets young Aboriginals living in the downtown core, including some already on the streets, to get them thinking about job opportunities.
"These are the ones that may down the road start to panhandle, so the idea is to stop the flow before it starts," Hunter says.
(John Ludwick can be reached at email@example.com)