THUNDER BAY, ONT. — Some businesses in Thunder Bay have been dealing with vagrancy and panhandling in and around their establishments and have developed a fair — and kind — boundary for all people visiting them.
Recently, a popular restaurant came under fire after an erroneous social media post was misconstrued.
The issue revolved around Sylvia, who has resided in the Bay and Algoma district for the past 10 years. Sylvia has been provided warmth, meals, water, soft drinks and coffee, friendship, washroom facilities, a safe place, and even a paying job by neighbouring businesses in the area.
The only rules are she is asked not to approach customers for handouts or panhandle in the doorways.
Jason Pearce, who co-owns The Madhouse, says this is all about boundaries.
“We’ve cared for Sylvia for 10 years and you couldn’t even imagine how many meals and how many soda pops we, (and our customers) have given her,” said Pearce.
“She’s been in our neighbourhood forever. She uses our washroom and we take care of her. We’re very comfortable helping her, as well as also saying, ‘Sylvia, it’s time to go,’ and she’s very understanding of that too.
“This is a story about boundaries where we have to say you can’t be in our building, asking a nice elderly couple for change or to buy you some food while they’re eating. People become uncomfortable with that. We don’t control what happens on the sidewalks or even the parking lot, but our boundaries are inside and at the front door.”
Across the street at the Bean Fiend Cafe, owner Brian Hamilton says Sylvia is “basically like family to a bunch of us,” and they too have been providing meals for her for more than seven years.
“The same could be said about the Madhouse,” said Hamilton. “We all have different dials of acceptable boundaries. In regards to Sylvia, for example, she can come in and if we have no customers she could sit at a booth. We’ll give her a small coffee if she wants. Amy, from the Growing Season, pays her to do breakdown recycling. She’s ours, and we have all been taking care of her for years.
Hamilton says there are rules in place that she’s not allowed to panhandle in or outside of his restaurant either.
“We don’t look kindly on that. She knows better . . . and she just comes in and has a coffee peacefully at a table. But no, she can’t come in and solicit donations,” he said.
Both Hamilton and Pearce are frustrated at a woman who posted allegations on social media before learning the real story.
This led to anger, boycotts and even threats to the Madhouse restaurant.
Sylvia says she enjoys her job and everyone in the district treats her well.
“They say ‘hello, how are you doing?’” said Sylvia. “Sometimes they will give me money. (The Madhouse and Bean Fiend) feed me at the end of the day when I need supper or food.”
Sylvia visited the Madhouse recently and was warmly greeted by the staff. She left the restaurant with a soda pop that she happily sipped on her walk. They assured her that she was always welcome at the Madhouse.
The City of Thunder Bay’s stance on panhandling, soliciting, loitering and vagrancy follows the Safe Streets Act.
“There’s a lot of human rights issues about people trying to survive,” said Doug Vincent, the city’s manager of licensing and enforcement. “We don’t have any bylaws that would deal with what’s happening. . . . In front of a restaurant, people are free to ask for money. They’re free to solicit, as long as they don’t do it in an aggressive manner.”
Vincent says when soliciting takes place inside a restaurant or in a private space, then it becomes an issue. If the owner of the property doesn’t want you to do an activity and you refuse, then you could be deemed to be trespassing and be removed. If you fail to leave, the police can be called.
He said the Safe Streets Act codifies aggressive panhandling or aggressive begging, and anything that puts the person who’s begging at risk, like standing out in a traffic island. Police often shuffle beggars off of dangerous roadways for their protection.
The Safe Streets Act doesn’t include dialog on panhandling in or on business property. It does, however, provide restrictions. People who are soliciting or panhandling cannot threaten physical harm, words or gestures. Panhandlers cannot block the path of the unresponding person. The solicitor cannot follow behind, along or ahead of the person, and cannot solicit while impaired. They cannot continue to solicit a person in a persistent manner if the person has responded negatively. They also cannot solicit a captive audience in areas such as an automated teller or public transit stop, or a person in the process of getting out of or into a car in a parking lot.
Sandi Krasowski, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Chronicle-Journal