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Begging ban in London, Ontario

July 07 2011
Banning panhandling would not survive legal challenges, say critics


An anti-poverty activist has warned that attempts to ban panhandling in the Canadian city of London would meet with significant legal obstacles.

The mayor of London, Joe Fontana, was reported earlier this month to be considering introducing a byelaw that makes it illegal to panhandle, defined as sitting or standing on the street asking for change. Such a law was one of the pledges in Fontana’s election campaign last autumn.

But Rob Rainer, head of the organisation Canada Without Poverty, said that a ban on panhandling would be unlikely to survive legal challenges. He said that the Supreme Court had previously sided against this kind of ban. "It has ruled that the act of panhandling can be considered to be a form of expression,” he said. “It's essentially a gesture of asking for help."

Canada Without Poverty is currently part of a legal challenge on a byelaw being made against panhandlers in the Canadian city of Winnipeg. Rainer said London should expect a ban to be met with a similar challenge from anti-poverty groups.

The debate about panhandling was reignited after London’s police reported that the number of tickets given for panhandling-related offences in the first part of this year had increased by 20 per cent over the same period a year ago. While panhandling itself is not illegal in London, it is a ticketable offence to approach cars or people who using phones and cash machines.

Fontana cited these police statistics as one of the reasons he was now considering introducing the byelaw to ban panhandling.

“It is something that has been problematic,” he told the London Metro. “You’ve seen the number of charges that have been laid. It’s unsafe for them, it’s unsafe for the general public and it’s just not the kind of city I want to build where people, or tourists, are being subjected to this kind of thing - not only on intersections, but on our streets.”

Rainer said that a ban was a “negative way of addressing the problem” and that it would be better to look at what led people to start panhandling in the first place.

“If you're sincerely interested in addressing panhandling as an issue, take a look at what's really driving people to the street," he said. "Look at those root causes. Don't stigmatise people because they're panhandling. Don't set this up as [a] getting-tough-on-crime kind of attitude."