Homeless in Vancouver: The median income of a South Granville panhandler

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      Thursday morning (August 3) I watched a panhandler briefly work the intersection of West Broadway and Granville Street.

      Panhandling in an intersection is a form of aggressive solicitation that is expressly outlawed by the B.C. Safe Streets Act of 2004. Section 3 of the Act, prohibiting solicitation of a captive audience, states:

      A person commits an offence if the person, while on a roadway, solicits a person who is in or on a stopped, standing or parked vehicle.

      And it only took a few minutes this morning for the police to show up and ask the fellow to stop.

      A real flash in the pan panhandler

      Stanley Q. Woodvine

      7:43:40: A long-haired, scruffily-dressed young man, armed with an empty, large-sized, white paper McDonald’s cup, begins panhandling on the median of the east side of the intersection of West Broadway with Granville Street.

      Back in 2012, My friend Stix (an accomplished intersection panhandler) characterized this run of West Broadway median as a “golden corner”.

      Stanley Q. Woodvine

      7:46:30: Three minutes in and still no contributions. Traffic is light this morning and most drivers have their windows rolled up against the air, which is hazed by wood smoke from distant wildfires. And those big transit bus windows don’t open at the best of times.

      Stanley Q. Woodvine

      7:54:08: After several fruitless passes among successive stationary batches of motorists waiting at the red light, the young man receives his first drop—a single loonie dollar coin—from a woman in a black SUV.

      Stanley Q. Woodvine

      7:54:32: Seconds later, a Vancouver police officer, driving by in a patrol wagon, cuts the panhandling session short. After a brief word with the officer the young man retires to the sidewalk.

      Street panhandlers and street panhandlers

      The B.C. Safe Streets Act of 2004 was patterned on an earlier Ontario law of the same name, largely to do away with so-called squeegee kids—a sort of mal du siècle innovation of panhandling that flourished and became a concern in B.C. in the first years of the 21st century.

      “Squeegee kids” became the name for panhandlers armed with window squeegees who would wait at busy intersections and then squeegee the windshields of cars stopped at red lights, in hopes of obliging and guilting drivers to give them money.

      B.C.’s Safe Streets Act appears to have succeeded in all but eliminating the squeegee kids and it has put a real damper on the practice of intersection panhandling. In my limited travels, the only place that I expect to see such soliciting is at Main Street and Terminal Avenue.

      I rarely see anyone attempt to solicit money from drivers in the South Granville area anymore, which is why I paid such close attention to this morning’s intrepid panhandler.

      Police report claims $1,000 a month for South Granville panhandlers

      The Starbucks in the 2600 block of Granville—close to West 11th, with both a parking meter and a newspaper box—is the only business that fits the description of the complainant.
      Google Street View

      July 20th, the Vancouver police board heard a report on a complaint by a business in the 2600 block of Granville Street to the effect that police were not doing enough to address the related problems of homelessness and panhandling on the high-end shopping street.

      The report was completed on July 4 and deals with “Service or Policy Complaint #2017-121: Alleged Failure of VPD to Address Panhandling in the 2600 Block of Granville Street“.

      In refuting the complaint, the report drops a gem about the panhandlers of South Granville.

      Relating how a VPD homeless outreach coordinator has “personally attended the 2600 block Granville St several times” but “only once has she come across anyone sitting in the block”, the report throws out the following:

      Any parties located are offered outreach and housing support, but these offers are generally declined. Regular panhandlers suggest that they make approximately $1000 per month panhandling at this location and are not interested in welfare or other support offered.

      It was news that the police made such a statement in an official report and that’s how the Georgia Straight newspaper’s Carlito Pablo reported the fact, without any more editorializing than to point out that social assistance rates in B.C. are such that a welfare recipient earns a measly $7.80 a day.

      I, however, am more than happy to editorialize. I found the statements attributed to South Granville panhandlers that they don’t want welfare and housing because they can earn $1000 a month as homeless panhandlers to be nonsensical.

      For one thing, the panhandlers in South Granville that the VPD are referring to do not turn down money and they would not turn down welfare and housing unless they believed that the offers were not genuine or had too many strings attached.

      Certainly there are plenty of panhandlers in Vancouver who are receiving welfare and living in social housing.

      And for another thing, there’s no way that panhandlers in South Granville make $1,000 a month—they have to make at least twice that amount—they have expensive drug habits to support, after all!

      I’m not saying that a panhandler (or panhandlers) didn’t make such statements to police; I’m saying that the statements are as factually challenged as many that panhandlers will make in the pursuit of their goals.

      High cost of being a street drug addict

      First off, $1,000 a month only represents something like $32.25 to $35.71 a day, which is nowhere near enough to support a serious street drug habit.

      To be blunt, all of the serious panhandlers that I have known in the South Granville area have been dedicated street drug users and I mean with addictions costing between $100 a day to $500 a day.

      To put it another way, everyone I know (or have known) with such costly drug addictions are (or were) serious panhandlers—panhandling being one of the few legal ways for street drug addicts to pay for expensive drug habits.

      Secondly, as I say, it doesn’t ring true that a panhandler would refuse welfare out of hand. Panhandlers, as a rule, do not refuse money—whether from a private source or from the government.

      Welfare rates encourage panhandling!

      Receiving welfare and panhandling are hardly mutually exclusive activities. In fact the former often seems to encourage the latter.

      The pittance that welfare provides ($7.80 a day, remember?) drives many non-drug-addicted recipients to either collect bottles or to panhandle to make ends meet, particularly in the final one week stretch before they receive their next monthly cheque.

      And if welfare cannot even cover monthly essentials like food, it definitely cannot cover a drug addict’s monthly drug bill.

      Surprising as it may seem to readers, there are, in fact, already a large number of serious drug addicts receiving welfare and living in government-provided housing.

      At least some number of these housed and socially-assisted street drug users are former homeless people. Furthermore, some number of these former homeless people were panhandlers and/or binners before they received social assistance and housing. And some number of them are still panhandlers and/or binners.

      Many of the people that I’m referring to, could accurately be referred to as professional panhandlers who receive a not-unwelcome bit of mad money in the form of a monthly welfare cheque.

      To paraphrase the way that one long-time homeless binner and recipient of monthly disability benefits (totaling more than twice what welfare pays) explained the rules of the welfare game to me: the free government money was for drugs. If you wanted money to eat, he added, that was what the streets and alleys were for—meaning panhandling and binning.

      Thirdly, the statement in the VPD report ludicrously underestimates what a panhandler in South Granville should be able to make in a month.

      As I’ve already said, $1,000 a month will barely begin to cover the cost of a serious street drug addiction.

      And it’s well understood in the order of these things on the street that panhandling is much more lucrative than binning for returnable beverage containers, yet an income of $1,000 a month is hardly out of reach for a binner.

      I’m not going to say how often I make or exceed $1,000 a month as a binner but I will say that when I make less it’s because I didn’t make the effort.

      Now, for another perspective, let’s return to Thursday morning’s panhandler at the intersection of West Broadway and Granville. Consider and extrapolate the $1 cash grab that he made in the 10 minutes before he was so politely interrupted by the VPD.

      A dollar every 10 minutes works out to $6 an hour. Even at $6 an hour a panhandler could make $2,160 in a 30-day month, so long as they begged for 12 hours a day—day-in, day-out—for the entire month. And such, in fact, is the dedication displayed by a serious panhandler.

      Some see freeloaders, I see hard-working slaves

      Finally, I have to say that it doesn’t matter how much a panhandling drug addict makes because it never seems to be enough.

      Five hundred dollars a day? Pfft! It all runs through their fingers like sand—like the hourglass of their diminishing life expectancy.

      Just as work expands to fill the time allowed, a drug addiction seems to expand to empty a drug addict’s wallet.

      In business, it’s not what you make, it’s what you keep and drug addicts keep next to nothing.

      I cannot count how many times in 12 years that one of South Granville’s panhandlers has bragged to me of the $50 drops they received on their way to a $300 day, only to have them grind me for $2 because they had not enough left to even buy themselves a cup of coffee.

      So I can never get worked up or envious over what a panhandler can make on a high-traffic corner of South Granville. I can only feel pity and a sort of anger. That’s because none of these boys and girls are making out like the bandits some people may choose to see them as.

      All of them—all of the high-earning South Granville panhandlers that I have seen, without exception—have essentially been working hour-after-hour as little more than slaves to the illegal drug trade.

      Personally I don’t care a whit about blaming the victims of the drug trade or belittling them.

      I only care about ending the slavery and freeing those worse-than-indentured workers of the illicit drug trade who want to be freed.

      I believe in using whatever methods work—certainly evidence-based treatment and harm reduction strategies and/or any other better methods that we can come up with.

      Stanley Q. Woodvine is a homeless resident of Vancouver who has worked in the past as an illustrator, graphic designer, and writer. Follow Stanley on Twitter at @sqwabb.