The Other Side of the Vagrancy Coin

By Jason Menard

It’s all too easy in our politically correct world to simply label people who express concerns about vagrancy as insensitive, elitist, or ignorant. The one idea we are reluctant to embrace the fact that they may be right.

We all want to do and say the right things, but sometimes it’s hard to reconcile what’s right and what’s real. Such is the case with the issue of vagrancy in the downtown core.

I do not spend as much time downtown as I would like. Or, more appropriately, I don’t spend as much time downtown as I think I should. For me, more conveniently located stores and lack of time have been the greatest factors in this reality. And the one excuse that many use always seemed false to me – until this weekend.

Fear.

We have reports from store owners saying that the presence of vagrants scares away potential clients. And I, like many others, were quick to dismiss these complaints as an indication that some people just aren’t sensitive to the needs of others. These vagrants are down on their luck and simply trying to survive. For whatever reasons or demons that drove them to this state, the fact of the matter is that vagrancy is the state in which they now find themselves.

It’s too easy to hold onto our left-wing, love everyone mentality when we’re looking through the green-tinted windows of our ivory towers. It’s when you get on the street level that the complexities of the problem truly reveal themselves.

Driving downtown on a lazy Sunday, I was struck by the sheer volume of down-on-their-luck men hanging around the corner of Horton and Wellington. It’s understandable due to the mission tucked in a little down the side street there, but to see the number was a stark reminder of how lucky we are.

But just as telling were the empty storefronts and depressed area that served as a backdrop for this collection of people. It’s a reminder of the impact that vagrancy can have on a region.

As one who loves to walk – and I spend as much time as I can walking the downtown streets, whether here, in Montreal, or Toronto, I take note of my surroundings. And looking at the collection of people standing around there, I thought to myself that this would be one path that I’d avoid.

Now, I’m a 33-year-old male. I’m about six-feet-tall and find myself wavering between the good and bad side of 200 pounds. And I was given pause to stop. What about my wife? What about my young son and daughter? Would they be comfortable walking through that environment? By extension, would an elderly couple, or group of young girls feel secure in the same situation? Can we not see that this may have an impact on people’s decisions on where and when to shop?

Obviously not everyone that’s a vagrant is violent. But there are some – just as there are in all walks of life – who can be violent, or who may be unstable. Are you willing to risk that type of encounter when there are malls and other shopping venues scattered throughout the city?

So what’s the solution? Simply shuffling vagrants off and putting them out of sight is akin to putting a bandage on the arm of someone who has cancer – it’s ineffective and eventually the patient dies from within. The issue of vagrancy is one that we have to tackle on a societal basis. We need to come up with programs and services to keep people off the street and help them either get the support they need, or reintegrate them into society. Now that’s easy to say, but seemingly impossible to do. The fact of the matter is that there is no fast and easy solution to homelessness here.

But the most important thing we need to do is stop being so quick to condemn those who are speaking only their truth. The idea of a storefront owner complaining about the presence of vagrants may appear to be callous, but it is their reality. Shoppers have choices and will stay away if they feel uncomfortable.

That may not represent the best that humanity has to offer, but it’s a truth nonetheless. Only listening to the truths that make us feel good while ignoring the realities that may not be as politically correct or uplifting doesn’t help us solve any of the problems that we face.

When you actually take a moment to walk a few steps in someone else’s shoes, then it’s a little easier to see that the path isn’t as rosy as we’d like to believe. And maybe by putting foot to pavement and getting a first-hand view of the problem, we can find some better solutions along the way.

2006© Menard Communications – Jason Menard All Rights Reserved

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