Why Panhandlers Need a Union

By Proshanto Smith

The first reaction when most people hear the idea of a “panhandlers union” is laughter. Then the jocular questions start: When a panhandler goes on strike, will anyone notice — or care? What could they possibly want, wider sidewalks?

Given the widespread misunderstanding of what it means to belong to a union, these questions are not altogether unexpected.

Every person must first and foremost have the freedom to exist; history shows us when this freedom is infringed for any, it becomes a threat to all.

For panhandlers, begging is the means for survival. Take this away, and one threatens their existence. The Panhandlers Union of Ottawa has been formed in response to the attempt by police, business interests and government to eradicate panhandling through the criminal justice system by characterizing panhandling as aggressive.

Panhandlers have inadequate or no income and shelter. Most have inadequate education, skills and family support. According to a study prepared for the City of Ottawa, 32 per cent of panhandlers have had some involvement with the foster-care system.

They are burdened with anxiety, depression and low self-esteem and they often develop drug and alcohol addictions, all of which present barriers to integration into the community. Many suffer years of homelessness before they get the help they need to stabilize. And some never make it off the street.

In this city, where street vending is prohibited, panhandlers do not have other legal options to make a living if they are not job-ready.

Yes, individuals can recover by overcoming the psychological trauma and addictions associated with their plight. However, judgment and condemnation are not the cornerstones of recovery. In fact, they present sometimes-insurmountable barriers.

Society must make room for the homeless by graciously extending a hand.

In April 2004 the Ottawa-Outaouais General Members Branch of the Industrial Workers of the World unanimously agreed to extend such a hand when member Jane Scharf requested that panhandlers become part of that union. She said panhandlers were enduring harassment by shopkeepers, the police and social-service agencies.

Panhandlers were unable to pay the $3 monthly dues and therefore did not become full members. IWW members nevertheless provided support such as assistance with police complaints, assistance in getting panhandling tickets registered with the Ticket Defence Program and advocacy with social services and housing authorities. For a time, the union produced an edition of the Dominon newspaper for distribution by the panhandlers for donations. The city shut this successful venture down with a bylaw that prohibits street vending with or without a licence.

In the summer of 2004, hundreds of community and labour activists helped the Panhandlers Union organize a homeless action strike in the form of a tent city at City Hall. This action, which lasted 55 days, drew public attention to many of the problems facing the street person in Ottawa.

The panhandlers demanded that the city stop prosecuting panhandlers who were not aggressive, and find more humane solutions to homelessness. They were able to get the mayor to set up a task force to investigate the way the city and police are treating the homeless.

As found in the many public delegations made to the Task Force on Homelessness and the Safe Streets Act 2005, many of these panhandlers come from backgrounds of tremendous trauma with very little — if any — assistance in learning to cope with the effects of the beatings, rapes and deprivation they have experienced.

The police have made an effort to improve the treatment of homeless persons and are working with community agencies to try and find more humane responses. However, the city continues to abuse and discriminate against the homeless when it tries to move them off the street into housing. For example the homeless cannot access Ontario Works or emergency housing programs because they do not have addresses where they can be contacted.

This year IWW member Andrew Nellis secured funding from local labour groups, businesses and individuals to ensure that union dues were no longer a barrier for panhandlers. To date, the union has signed up 25 members and meets formally once a month at a drop-in centre to plan, network, and organize.

Members of the Panhandlers Union are negotiating with Ottawa City Hall and the various business improvement areas regarding the current ban on street vending so that the homeless can sell their arts, crafts, jewelry, and street newspapers, as well as perform music and street theatre. With the union behind them they can look to the future with an entrepreneurial spirit.

Proshanto Smith is an Ottawa panhandler who negotiated with the mayor on the homeless task force. He wrote this article in collaboration with the Panhandlers’ Union of Ottawa.

First published in the Ottawa Citizen as part of a settlement with the Ontario Press Council for the Citizen’s publication of false information about the Ottawa Panhandlers Union.