City & Politics, City Hall, Planning

Don’t blame business for oppression of the homeless

“The law, in all its majestic equality,” wrote French writer Anatole France in his novel The Red Lily. “Forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal bread.”

While this passage is often quoted, it is rarely pointed out that France wrote these penetrating words over a hundred years ago, in 1894. Yet the passage, by eloquently describing systemic inequalities we can all intuitively recognize, continues to resonate today and no more so when applied to the streets of downtown Winnipeg.

To be a homeless alcoholic or drug addict roaming Manitoba’s capital requires an inconspicuous presence and a knack for locating shadowy places. Winnipeg’s homeless are constantly on the run.

Armed with provincial legislation prohibiting public intoxication; police cadets, private security guards and the Downtown Winnipeg Business Improvement Zone patrols are tasked with routing out the city’s undesirables.

They are easily identified. Frequently Aboriginal and in the throes of intoxication, they often squat on planters and benches, or stand–hands outstretched–near the entrances of the tall office buildings that line Portage Avenue and Broadway.

These individuals live with the constant threat of being apprehended, due to their addiction, their abject poverty and, in part, their race

If this were not enough, looming billboards at major downtown intersections prod middle class office workers to donate their money to business-friendly charities sooner than drop it in the outstretched hands of downtrodden beggars.

“Where will your money go?” the recently erected billboards ominously read.

“A hot meal? Warm clothes? Shelter? Drugs? Alcohol? Cigarettes? Stop guessing.”

I can think of few things more oppressive than being trapped, by poverty and a perilous addiction, in a society that views your presence with disdain; as a nuisance and a scourge.

Many have attributed this oppressiveness to the policies and programs of the Downtown Winnipeg Business Improvement Zone, the authors of the above mentioned billboard.

The formation of Business Improvement Zones was permitted in 1987 and has been encouraged by the City of Winnipeg ever since. They now exist in most Winnipeg neighbourhoods and are largely involved in welcome beautification projects (murals, graffiti removal, street cleaning), lobbying and collaboration.

However, unlike its counterparts, the Downtown Winnipeg BIZ has taken on a far more substantive role in the community’s public life. And in so doing, it has garnered a great deal of criticism and sparked more than its share of controversy.

But is this new role a result of class conflict or the consequence of a public policy void around issues of urban poverty? I’m inclined to say the latter.

In 2006, the Manitoba NDP government granted the Downtown Winnipeg BIZ authority to create what it called Outreach officers; private patrols with special constable status to enforce the provincial Intoxicated Persons Detention Act. During the six year duration of the program (it expired at the beginning of this year), 10 Outreach patrols were given the authority to arrest publicly intoxicated individuals and transport them to the drunk tank or a nearby shelter.

Despite possessing police-like powers, critics pointed out that Outreach officers were not publicly accountable in nearly the same way as the Winnipeg Police Service. Outreach officers did not answer to the provincial Law Enforcement Review Agency (LERA) and there was no comparable mechanism for average citizens to file complaints against the officers.

As a result, the patrols’ authority was questioned and rumours of abuse spread.

Last fall, the Downtown BIZ hosted its CEOs for Downtown Sleepout event, whereby Manitoba chief executives received pledges to sleep under a large canopy at the corner of Portage and Main in order to raise $100,000 for anti-poverty programs. The event was disrupted by protesters posing as BIZ patrols, telling the executives to “move along.”

When the Downtown BIZ hosted three forums on civic issues, billed as the “Downtown Round-up” and featuring a lasso in event advertisements, delirious left-wing activists conceived this as subliminal colonialism. Finally, during a forum on public safety held at the Lo Pub on Winnipeg’s Ellice Avenue, community disdain for the private police force boiled over into a screaming match between the debaters and the audience.

I agree with many of the criticisms levelled at BIZ initiatives. Unaccountable private security patrols and street slumber parties for CEOs are no way to tackle poverty or to “revitalize” the inner city.

But criticizing the BIZ misses the mark. Tackling poverty should not be the Downtown BIZ’s job in the first place.

Ultimately, it is the provincial government that gave the Outreach patrols special constable status. City Hall financially supports BIZ programs and all governments, by not adequately addressing poverty, force citizens and private organizations to get involved in charitable activities to fill the void.

The Downtown Winnipeg BIZ is simply using the tools at its disposal, authorized by the government, to benefit the business community and to help the poor, albeit marginally. But it is up to the government, not the BIZ, to address poverty and to end oppression on the city’s streets.


Ethan Cabel writes for the Spectator Tribune.

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