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When people recently began posting sightings on a popular Facebook site about a woman giving out flowers and then demanding donations in metro-area parking lots, the tone of the comments quickly turned to vigilantism.
“For the love of God. Swing the door open full tilt and knock her on her ass,” said one poster on Buyer Beware Newfoundland.
Some posters on the Facebook site suggested people encountering the woman should alert the Royal Newfoundland Constabulary, and some even reported patrol cars were circling the lots looking for her.
One poster even mapped out where the woman was likely to turn up next. Reports had her claiming to have a relative — usually a brother or son — with cancer.
After handing the rose, the woman would aggressively demand money, according to the posters, and snatch back the rose if the person didn’t pay up. Such a scenario is not uncommon in other cities around the world, especially tourist destinations where locals offer a “gift” and then try to sell the tourist their trinkets.
The posts spiralled to nearly 400 comments, some of which became aggressive in tone, to the point a few chimed in to say they feared for the woman’s safety.
Albeit, the flower seller may have a scam element to her pitch, others talked of their scorn for all panhandlers.
“Panhandling makes me uncomfortable in general. I think the city should charge them with disturbing the peace or something similar,” said one poster.
“I got surrounded by three men with cups leaving the Mile One at night. I was frightened for my life. It’s getting way out of hand down here for this bullshit.”
“Gypsies,” said another. “They move from city to city usually this time of year and panhandle and rip people off ... common thieves.”
The RNC, when contacted by The Telegram, wasn’t aware of any complaints about the so-called flower seller. Neither was the City of St. John’s or the City of Mount Pearl.
The RNC said the matter would be more of a bylaw enforcement issue.
Neither St. John’s nor Mount Pearl has a bylaw specifically directed at panhandling.
But other rules may apply, such as the requirement of having a vendor’s licence in St. John’s if she was indeed selling the flowers. Any sale of articles of any kind from a parking lot, display table, vehicle, etc. falls under the Mobile Vending Bylaw and requires a permit.
Loitering bylaws are also common in municipalities. For instance, Mount Pearl’s bylaw — that among other things includes loitering — has the simple definition that no person shall loiter in a public place and thereby obstruct any other person.
(The second part of the two-part loitering section of the bylaw is specific to feet — no person shall stand or put his/her feet on the top or surface of any table, bench, plant or sculpture placed in any public space.)
The City of St. John’s noted there are some aspects of the Highway Traffic Act that concern people’s responsibility if a public road is involved, which would require enforcement by the RNC.
For example, “Persons shall not congregate in a place on or near a highway in a way that they obstruct traffic or interfere with the movement of traffic.”
St. John’s Mayor Danny Breen said from the description, what the woman was doing is a form of panhandling.
Panhandling has been a problem for the city for a long time — and again is not unique to St. John’s, or even to modern society.
But in recent years, the perceived aggressiveness of panhandlers has become a sticking point of businesses, particularly in the downtown area, to the point the city — recognizing the issue as a complex community concern — accepted a proposal from Thrive, which provides services and support to vulnerable people and runs the Street Reach program.
It’s not as simple as trying to move panhandlers along.
“We need to address the underlying issues as best you can,” said Breen.
With a $15,000 grant as a starting point, Thrive expects to hear soon about its application to the JobsNL wage subsidy program at Advanced Education, Skills and Labour. That funding would secure a position for a six-month contract.
That new hire would lay the foundation for what Thrive hopes will become a permanent part of Street Reach, an outreach service.
The person will research the best practices for supporting those who panhandle — perhaps with alternatives to having to obtain money that way, said Ellie Jones, Thrive’s director of programming for outreach and education.
Another component is building compassion within the community — helping people understand why folks feel they need to panhandle.
The program would also work with businesses on better ways to handle the issue of panhandling.
The root cause is the amount of money people may receive on income support or disability and the failure of those funds to cover basic needs.
While some people may not understand why those who are vulnerable don’t simply get a job, there are complex reasons why the workplace may not be right for someone struggling with various challenges — whether those involve disabilities or mental health and addiction struggles.
There are other issues, such as restrictions on food bank usage and the number of food banks, which cause people to not have enough to get by on and turn to begging.
“The reality for people like us in this line of work is we sit in a very privileged place — we see a whole different walk of life and the experiences they have,” Jones said.
For the average person panhandling, the support they receive through income support or other sources might amount to a mere $70 every two weeks, she noted.
When they seek services at drop-in centres, they’re looking for basic things others take for granted — toilet paper, feminine hygiene products, shampoo and conditioner.
Jones said she believes the compassion is there in people to flip some of their ideas of the panhandler on their head.
“As Newfoundlanders, we talk about how we care about another and what a compassionate place this is … how people can step up to things,” Jones said. “I believe in the ability of people to tap into that.”
It’s expected the new position will be created in mid-July, pending JobsNL approval.