Panhandlers face fines, property seizures

Updated Sidney bylaw will allow police, town officials to seize and sell obstructing items

Panhandlers in Sidney had better behave themselves or face new fines and potential seizure of their belongings.

The Town of Sidney adopted a revised streets and traffic bylaw June 23 following debate over the distress caused by panhandlers in the downtown area this spring. In the bylaw, fines of $65 to $130 could be levied against anyone who obstructs a sidewalk, impedes pedestrian traffic or causes an object to be an obstruction or a nuisance.

Additionally, the bylaw states that a municipal official or police officer may seize the property of a person “unlawfully occupying any street or other public place in contravention.”

The possessions, continued the document, can be impounded until their owner pays the Town the costs associated with the seizure. If the items are not collected in 14 days, and after a five-day advertising period, the Town will be able to sell it to recoup their costs.

The bylaw also states that a person cannot solicit in a specific location for more than two hours continuously or cumulatively, within a 48-hour period. Enforcement is only listed as fines.

Councillor Melissa Hailey noted that the bylaw is somewhat ironic in that it would fine people who are unlikely able to afford them. She added, however, that if people want to help others, they should do so with charitable programs set up to target them directly.

Coun. Kenny Podmore added the Town is acting on public feedback on the issue and Coun. Tim Chad noted the Town is following the province’s safe streets act. That act was put in place in 2004 and was created specifically to target aggressive or abusive panhandlers and Vancouver’s squeegee kids. Sidney’s bylaw contains a single reference to harassing behaviour, focussing instead on obstructions and nuisance behaviours.

“We have a seniors population here and panhandling is a problem for them, “ said Mayor Larry Cross, noting he’s aware of two specific panhandlers who return to Sidney each day.

“They come here because it’s really worth their while.”

Coun. Steve Price was critical of a News Review editorial on June 4 that lamented a knee-jerk reaction to a relatively small issue and one that could force panhandlers to simply move elsewhere.

“This council has stepped up above and beyond what previous councils have done,” Price said, pointing to Sidney’s ongoing contribution to the Capital Regional District’s affordable housing trust fund.

“We have housed a lot of people over a lot of years,” Price said.

The CRD’s housing trust fund is paid into by 12 regional municipalities. Sidney’s share is a total of $178,298 in its five years of participation. North Saanich, on board for 10 years, has contributed $393,944. Central Saanich has contributed $380,063 over eight years.

The trust fund goes to provide subsidized rents on affordable housing and to assist non-profit groups to build affordable housing. It does not list specific housing for panhandlers or the homeless population.

Additionally, the CRD’s Regional Housing Corporation provides six units in Sidney and 24 in North Saanich — all considered affordable housing. Corporation senior manager Christine Cullam says none of those units are funded by municipal money and all were built prior to 1997.