Monday, January 11, 2010

Excuse me, do you have a toonie?

So, in one of the forum sites I belong to, one of the forum members recounted how she was nearly attacked while walking by Maple Leaf Gardens in downtown Toronto, and that started a mini discussion on the homeless, and the druggies in Toronto core.

I've always had a very strong opinion on the homeless, the panhandlers, and the druggies in downtown Toronto. I think it is primarily because I come from Singapore, and Singapore has a very strict stance on such social ills.

I am a total believer of the "Broken Windows" theory, by James Wilson and George Kelling. The title of this theory comes from the following example: (from Wikipedia)

Consider a building with a few broken windows. If the windows are not repaired, the tendency is for vandals to break a few more windows. Eventually, they may even break into the building, and if it's unoccupied, perhaps become squatters or light fires inside.

Or consider a sidewalk. Some litter accumulates. Soon, more litter accumulates. Eventually, people even start leaving bags of trash from take-out restaurants there or breaking into cars.

So, in the same way, by ignoring the panhandlers, the homeless and the druggies, we might just be paving a way for bigger social ills in the City of Toronto.

I really do wish that we have a strong leadership for this beautiful city of Toronto. A leader who is not afraid to stand up and make tough decisions to clean up the streets of Toronto.

Anyhow, going to share with you all an essay that I wrote for one of my speech projects again. =)

Let me know your thoughts. =)

Excuse Me, Do you have a Toonie?

“Excuse me, do you have a quarter?” Well, recently, I have heard more along the lines of, “Excuse me, do you have a toonie?”

Panhandling, a politically correct term for begging, rampant all over Toronto, is a baffling phenomenon that I still cannot make sense of. Isn’t Canada supposed to be quite a socialist country? And given the huge amount of taxes that Canadians, and the working immigrants are paying, one would think that we would have enough social and welfare programs to help out our poor, our needy, and our mentally sick.

Alas, this is not the case. Hence, the tonnes of panhandlers littered around the busy intersections of downtown Toronto, surviving on the dole outs from passers bys, and soft-hearted tourists.

Ladies and gentlemen, today, I would like to talk about panhandling, how it affects me, and some success stories in dealing with panhandling.

In an ideal world, we will never have to deal with the discomfort of seeing a dirty, ragged panhandler, stretching out his dirt-filled hands, asking for your spare change. However, that is not the case in Toronto.

Panhandlers make me very uncomfortable. Unfortunately for me, they seem to be everywhere! When I walk to work, when I walk to shop and eat, when I walk home, when I drive to visit my relatives in Markharm…

Just last month, I had a panhandler come up to me, and ask me for spare change, as I was opening up my wallet to pay for my burger at the Atrium on Bay. I freaked out, and gave a little shriek! I was not expecting to see a panhandler in the mall food court. Normally, I am okay to pay for a meal, but I was so frazzled by the unexpected begging that I heaved a visible sigh of relief when the mall security ushered the panhandler out.

The past weekend, I saw the same incident when I was at the Eaton Center food court. A lady hurriedly scooped up her open wallet she had on her table, when a panhandler approached her to ask for change.

I’ve also seen young teenagers, who sit on the Yonge and Dundas intersection, with a sign that says, “Spare Change for Alcohol!” It is not even funny, and to make matters worse, people actually gave them money, because they found the sign hilarious and cool! What kind of lessons are we imparting to our next generation?

For me, it has come to a point that I pretend I do not see these people, staring at some fake interesting thing beyond these people, and trying to block them out of my reality… And for those who actually call out and ask for money, I say to them, “I am sorry” and scurry away. But really, why do I have to apologize for not wanting to give them any of my money?

I am sad to say that because of these panhandlers, I have actually become hardened to the harsh reality of the poor and needy people since living in Toronto. I am beginning to feel numb. And I am sure I am not the only one.

To add fuel to fire, it certainly does not help when I read some of the panhandling stories as I was doing some research for this speech.

There is Toronto’s famous “Shaky Lady”, who preyed on the kind hearted people while begging on Yonge and Bloor back in 2000 to 2002. She was eventually busted by a Toronto Sun reporter who found out that she was chauffeured to “work” every day in a Chevy Lumia. She also lived with her son and his three children in an apartment complete with leather furniture, a big screen TV, and a computer. Oh, and her shaking was staged. How’s that for a slap in the faces of all who believed her story of extreme poverty, and who gave her money out of the kindness of their hearts. One Thornhill guy reportedly gave her $60, and a McDonald’s meal during the Christmas season!

Then there is the stabbing death of 32-year-old, Ross Hammond, in Toronto after he and a friend refused to give money to 4 panhandlers just last August. The 4 panhandlers who killed Ross were between 21 to 22 years old, and they are from the US.

Some of the city’s panhandlers actually spoke up with regards to the Ross Hammond incident, and said that most of them are not aggressive panhandlers, and are harmless.

But are these panhandlers really harmless?

What do I make out of the fact that I find myself hardened towards the reality of the truly homeless and mentally ill people? Could our lax panhandling laws have attracted those 4 “aggressive panhandlers” from the US?

How do I handle these daily “assaults” in my community, and on my sense of self, especially the part of me who wants to be kind and compassionate?

Lots of questions, but no definite answer. Or rather no one wants to answer these questions. But there are solutions to this social phenomena. Just look at the successes that New York City, and Singapore has.

New York City has done a great job in cleaning its streets of panhandlers and crime. Back in the late 1980s, NYC undertook an unprecedented effort in cleaning up its crime infested streets, based on George L. Kelling’s and Jame’s Q Wilson’s “Broken Windows Theory”. According to this theory, “just as an unrepaired broken window is a sign that no one cares and invites more damage, so unattended disorderly behavior also signals that nobody is concerned and leads both to more disorderly behavior and to serious crime. Disorder left unattended leads to a breakdown of community control, ultimately undermining the fabric of urban life and social intercourse.”

Thus, panhandling, being an unattended disorderly social behavior, is outlawed in NYC. Panhandlers were taken away by the police and placed behind bars. Yes, this sounds inhumane, and is an infringement to human rights, and freedom of speech. But let us also consider the rights and freedom of the millions of citizens to have streets clean and free of panhandlers.

In Singapore, there are no beggars in the city. We allow licensed street buskers, but they are regulated. Beggars are also outlawed, harmless or not. They were taken away to community and welfare centers, and are put through rehabilitation and training programs that help them assimilate back into the society. We have welfare centers that provide jobs for these people, and give them a sense of contributing to the larger community. And I recall we used to have government paid advertisements telling us why we should not be giving money to the beggars, as giving money perpetuates and reinforces the begging habit.

Fellow Toastmasters, I have heard strange reasons given for allowing panhandlers in downtown Toronto. Reasons such as some of them are mentally ill, and for some of them, panhandling is the only way they can get money to survive. To all these, I say what baloney.

For the mentally ill, they should be treated and taken care of in hospitals… Leaving them in the streets just proves how callous we have become as a society!

And for those who fell on hard times, and are homeless, there are many shelters around the city, and many social and welfare programs available in the city that can help them climb out of the abyss.

We have to take tough stands and make tough decisions for the greater good of people.

I think it’s time we take a hard look at Toronto’s declining social standards, and ask ourselves what we can really do improve everyone’s lives in Toronto, both panhandlers and the rest of us alike.

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