Published in the op-ed pages of the Montreal Gazette, December 29, 2009.
In the May 27, 1907 edition of a now defunct city daily, it was reported that three Montrealers – John Wardlow, Nicholas McMahon, and Michael Ryan – were each sentenced to six months in prison plus a $25 fine, and an additional three months if the sanction could not be paid. What was their misdemeanour, you ask? It was quite simply “begging on the thoroughfares of the town”. Indeed, despite the genuine widespread misery of those pre – social welfare times, soliciting money in the streets of the municipality was clearly not tolerated.
While I do not make the administration of justice of Edwardian Montreal my model for what should or should not happen on the sidewalks and avenues of any contemporary city, one cannot help but notice the tremendous increase in the past twenty years or so in the number of individuals begging in the streets of this metropolis.
In point of fact, since retiring three and half years ago, I walk on a daily basis from Guy Street to the Grande Bibliothèque on Berri – a three kilometre stretch. Usually I plod along St. Catherine, occasionally Sherbrooke Street. Virtually every day, whatever the season, I see the same faces at the same intersections plying the same trade as best they know how – asking money of others to help them “scrape by”. Some stand, others crouch on the public pathway in the good-natured hope that you will contribute to their pecuniary needs. There is even a group of five or six malingerers (with what seems a dozen dogs!) who move fairly regularly from one location in the city centre to another to set up their urban camp. Currently, they are at the corner of Réne Lévesque (Dorchester) and St. Laurent. Their collection plate is never far off.
The phenomenon of seeking alms has even spilled over into the Metro where there is a clear regulation against it. From holding doors to standing at the foot of the escalator with cup in hand, one would think that Montreal is a city completely devoid of support networks for the destitute and homeless. In perhaps the deepest subway station in the underground system (Lucien L’Allier), one regular has even taken to smoking quite openly at the foot of the staircase at which he is begging – just a few feet away from the ticket booth. In another station (Berri-UQAM) passengers proceeding from the above ground inter-city bus terminus to the Metro almost always find themselves face to face – in relatively isolated surroundings – with totally unknown characters occupying the foot of the staircase facing the doors (which they are, of course, holding open) leading into the Berri station.
If all of this is not unfortunate enough, we also have the growing occurrence of panhandlers wandering off the sidewalk, when the signal light is red, and wading into traffic with cup in hand. Whenever I find myself at the corner of Berri and Viger, I have seen for the past several years the same individual practising his trade in the middle of the intersection in all sorts of disparate weather conditions. The métier must pay: Goodness me, the man actually has a cell phone!
So, even at the risk of sounding ‘politically-incorrect’ and insensitive, there is, in my opinion, far too much begging in the streets and subway corridors of Montreal.
Just recently, I returned from England where I was once again mixing pleasure with family history research. While there, in my free time, I sauntered extensively through Birmingham and London, particularly the latter. Not a day went by that I did not walk less than a couple of hours along the streets of England’s two largest cities. Nonetheless, in London, over a ten-day period I could not have seen in all more than ten or so mendicants on that town’s grand thoroughfares; basically, one a day, and absolutely none in the Underground network. During my thirty hours spent in Birmingham, I saw no instances of begging whatsoever. Contrast that with Montreal where on any given day on my three kilometre jaunt along Ste. Catherine Street I can easily come upon a couple of dozen individuals asking for money.
Why is this so? Is there more poverty in Montreal than in English cities? Somehow I think not. About a month ago, I may have inadvertently stumbled upon one possible explanation while walking through the Leicester Square area of the British capital. There, suddenly before me, was a portable placard placed by the local police authority reminding people that begging was illegal, and providing the public with a telephone number to report violations. Again, I contrast that with Montreal, which, in the late 1980’s as I recall, essentially removed the infraction from municipal by-laws. Since then, panhandling has flourished in this city, even attracting others from diverse parts of Canada.
Many years ago, when a young man, I (along with several others) had made myself overly comfortable at the National Monument in Dam Square in Central Amsterdam. While not panhandling, I nevertheless suddenly felt a sharp pain in my right shoulder. I gazed up to see a rather formidable looking Amsterdam police officer who had just put his boot into my much cherished faded denim jacket. “Move on, layabout!”, I remember him saying to me forcefully with that quintessential charming Dutch accent. Perhaps not surprisingly, I did decamp the premises rather quickly.
We must obviously not return to those Edwardian days of imprisoning the vagrants of the city. However, we should become more assertive in dealing with this awkward situation and not continue to turn a blind eye to it. Otherwise, Mike Boone’s ‘Spoonman’ will soon be just the tip of an iceberg of what is rapidly becoming a much greater irritant.