photos: Panhandling was an election issue in the Victoria municipal election.

Chamber of commerce makes Victoria homelessness, panhandling an election issue

Panhandling and visible homelessness in the Victoria’s downtown core
isn’t just bad for society. According
to the Greater Victoria Chamber of Commerce, it’s bad for business, too.

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Eradicating panhandling and solving street homelessness ranked as high-priority issues in a recent chamber of commerce membership survey, CEO Bruce Carter
says, second only to a desire for municipal amalgamation in the Greater Victoria Region. That’s why Carter, on behalf of the chamber of commerce, is urging Victoria’s candidates to consider the impact of homelessness
on business in their campaigns during the run-up to the municipal election Nov. 15.

“More needs to be done to prevent panhandling and homelessness: 56 per cent of our members who answered our annual survey said that was the case,” he says.

“Homelessness and panhandling is a major deterrent to economic vibrancy and a social travesty,” he adds. Only 25 per cent of members who took the survey indicated the city should “stay the course” on the issue.

This isn’t the first time the Chamber has raised homelessness and panhandling with municipal candidates, but Carter says it was less of a priority during the 2011 election, when the recession had business owners more concerned about their bottom lines.
“This strikes me as a bit more of a sign of a recovery in the economy,” Carter says.

Instead of pushing for a more fiscally conservative crime-and-punishment response to dealing with street homelessness, the Chamber recognizes that homelessness and panhandling can’t be “enforced out of existence,” as he puts it.

“The visibility of homelessness is a challenge,” Carter says, especially when people sleeping or panhandling block businesses’ doorways. “But we need to solve that by tackling core issues... ticketing or arresting homeless people or panhandlers is not an answer.”

The Greater Victoria Coalition to End Homelessness includes a Chamber member on its board of directors. The Coalition and the Chamber co-hosted “The Economics of Homelessness,” a talk by Professor Stephen Gaezt of York University, in mid-October.
Coalition executive director Andrew Wynn-Williams agrees city governments can play a vital role in ending homelessness.
He says zoning for affordable housing
and communicating why housing the homeless benefits everyone is well within
a municipal government’s power.

“They can’t necessarily create the circumstances where it’s really easy [to build affordable housing] because they don’t have the capital resources to build housing,”
he says, “but they can certainly block it.

So you need the municipality on board.” Wynn-Williams isn’t concerned about the motives behind the Chamber’s drive
to end homelessness in the downtown
core, saying he knows most members understand the complex reasons for homelessness like addiction, mental illness, and trauma. He also notes the members understand the devastating social cost of homelessness. But he says the Coalition doesn’t share the Chamber’s concerns about panhandling and its eradication with the eradication of homelessness.

“Even if you’ve ended homelessness,” Wynn-Williams says, “You haven’t ended poverty.”

PHOTO CREDIT: Elaine Briere.

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