Street beggars & city staff: separated at birth?

OK, so the title of this story is rather extreme. But read on.

I always say NO to beggars. My reasoning is as follows: if I give them money, I am increasing the demand for begging services. Soon, there will be more beggars because it is worth their effort to do so.  If I don’t give them money, I am signalling a lack of demand for their begging services, which should decrease the supply.

And what do begging services do? Let someone who feels guilty “buy off” their guilt by giving money to someone else? I am sure there are better ways to assuage guilty feelings, like a structured charity.

While I don’t encourage or “enable” beggars, this doesn’t mean I think less of them than others. They are, after all, entrepreneurs in a city where most other low-barrier-to-entry tasks are forbidden: they can’t perform services like wipe your windshield or polish your shoes or take you somewhere on a rickshaw or sell stuff, since the city regulates all those things. Barriers to entry are put up for a reason.

I was in one of those “public” places a little while ago. You know, the type with coffee and brewed drinks, comfortable armchairs, big windows. The closest thing we get in Ottawa to a public square or piazza. I was sitting there, reading porn. House porn, that is: a decorator magazine. Two guys came and sat in the adjacent arm chairs. They were neatly dressed, but fit the stereotype of  “street people”. Over the next hour and half, I listened to their conversation, and contributed a small bit.

Both guys had low grammar skills, but impressive vocabularies. They talked confidently of schizophrenia meds, their side effects, and alternative prescriptions. They talked about how to “convince” or persuade nurses to give them stuff. One volunteered that the secret was to “present well”. They had enough mastery of medical jargon to persuade me.

They explained banking services for the unaddressed. One used Sally Ann: she gets his mail, cashes the cheques, gives him an allowance on Fridays, cash. Which he spends right off the bat on provincial taxes (ie, the LCBO). Does he ever spend it at a bar? Nope, too expensive. The other guy chimed in that when he goes to a bar, the others all seem to know he has money and ask him for some and the first thing he knows he has none left and he can’t remember who he gave it to so he can’t ask for it back, and he can’t buy no more drink.

Both guys had other room-mates, and both were very cognizant of the other’s failings. The most articulate guy said he makes $60 in two hours begging on a weekday, and $140 on Fridays  from 3.30 pm (when  they –referring to office workers — get off work) til when he stops for dinner. He begs at a certain busy spot near the Rideau Centre. Gosh, look at the time, gotta get going down to Rideau before someone tries to take my spot. 

So where does my crack about city workers come in?

Well, I’ve been bothered for several months by something at a meeting I attended some months ago, hosted by the city. A  grad student was reporting on her research into walking in various neighbourhoods. Most of the other attendees in the audience were city staff. The Q&A session following was a veritable orgy of self congratulation as to how their particular fiefdom also recognized the importance of active transportation and what important priority work they were doing on it.

Some elaborated on that work. It all looked rather airy-fairy to me. You know, high level stuff, policy research, very abstract or else very very specialized. Where were all these concerned staffers when the ordinary tax payers are out objecting to anti-walking, anti-active transportation boondoggles like the Bronson reconstruction? All their efforts had a distinct aversion to actually providing a better walking or cycling environment.

So a short while ago I was at yet another walking / active-transportation planning meeting, catered, and well attended by city staff. Holy deja vu all over again, more statements about how much department X or project Y was doing to promote the good cause. More cognitive dissonance on my part.

Then last Saturday I attended the spring bike thingy hosted by CfSC, well attended by politicians (surely a sign of either an election or increasing importance of cycling) and some city staff. There were several presentations by various department reps about how they are promoting cycling. Always prefaced by comments about being short staffed, and starved of resources (hint hint: pay more taxes so I can deliver more services to you …).

But I found myself once again depressed by what they were doing, and how they were doing it. So many of the tasks were “good ideas”, like teaching people how to teach other people to ride bikes, or getting free bikes to poor kids, or outreaching, consulting with the community, educating, promoting, and priorizing. [And since when did setting your annual priorities become a significant accomplishment for the year?]

I felt these guys (and gals) were doing everything peripheral to the real task, beating around the bush, and doing the innocuous at great expense. We KNOW what works to promote cycling, and these folks weren’t doing much of that.

They had an impressive power point of projects and tasks, and were trained in presentation skills, but why were we doing those things at all?

So this brings me to the beggars and city staff, separated at birth hypothesis. You see, both  are wanting money for services I don’t want. In the case of the street beggar, s/he has very limited means to get the money, so generally  acts nicely. I can decline to contribute to the demand for begging services.

City staff however, employ the monopoly powers of government to the fullest extent to command the field of action, to compel tribute of money from the resident, and then deliver dubious services. *  The levers available to me to influence the supply of services is extraordinarily complicated and obtuse, quite deliberately so. So I end up buying “services” I don’t want.

The beggar and the doppelgänger … separated twins.



* I say dubious, because they have to think of the keep-busy good-idea task, and get funding that is always in risk of being removed. We don’t need municipal employees to teach kids to play video games, or how to watch TV, or the joys of driving a car. Somehow those activities are attractive enough that people find a way to do them, even if poor or at other disadvantage. Cycling however, has been made unattractive to residents (by colleagues of those civil servants) so now they  have to dream up peripheral activities to look busy while avoiding the real challenge. If riding was attractive, kids would get bikes (yes, even in poorer households) and figure out how to ride them. No civil servant standing over them. Here’s a research topic for some grad student: bike usage of Canadian urban poor youth compared to Dutch urban poor.

Note that I do appreciate what governments do for us that we cannot easily do as individuals or small groups, for eg, building roads or bike paths. Although I see no reason why parking, or even roads themselves, should be offered free.  Collective action has its important role central to society. What bugs me is the abundant supply of peripheral offerings at considerable expense when the main tasks are being avoided.


5 thoughts on “Street beggars & city staff: separated at birth?

  1. The problem with your supply and demand reasoning is that it only works if either one is a free choice. Indeed, the mistaken assumption in your first paragraph is that beggars choose to beg. Entrepreneurs, you call them, which pretty well sums up the attitude of most who have never had to scrounge for a meal or even a break. While this may be so in a few cases, it isn’t in most. And how do you tell the difference. You can’t, as you prove when you say you don’t at first recognize your seat mates as ‘entrepreneurs’. Or are they just poor saps who have learned how to play the system because that’s the only thing in their lives that they’ve found that works?

    I’ve been down and out myself a few times, and I know how easily that can happen through no fault of your own, and how hard it is to get out of those situations. Many don’t make it (thankfully I did). So it isn’t about guilt assuasion, as you rather cynically suggest, when I toss a loonie or a toonie in some person’s hat/coffee cup/whatever. And why should a percentage of that gift go to some charity’s payroll?

    And another thing: “e.g.” is usually (roughly) translated as “example given”; so saying “for e.g.” just sounds wrong. Perhaps you shouldn’t pick on others who have “low grammar skills”.

  2. I had a similar feeling attending the “Downtown Moves” presentation boards at city hall a few weeks back. I agree with what they were saying (by and large), I liked what they proposed, they all seemed very nice, etc., etc. So, then I ask: “What is the timeline for implementation?”. I was directed to an “Outcomes” poster board, where all activities were labeled by priority and when the expected implementation date was. These “outcomes” were things like: “Amend city plan to prioritize X”, “Formalize directive to city planning department regarding Y”, and so on.

    “So…”, I ask, “when do we widen the sidewalks and narrow the roads?” (who knows how much this study cost to come up with that one sentence summary). “Oh, we don’t do that”, the man from Delcan said. “Our mandate was just to identify what parts of the requisite planning documents needed amending in order to…etc…”.

    On one level I know this is how the process works, but at that moment, I nearly lost my sh!t. Fetishizing process over actually DOING SOMETHING seems to a hallmark of this government town. Some seem to believe that once we have written the “perfect” planning documents and have an optimized protocol in place, the actual implementation will take care of itself. The result? File cabinets full of planning documents talking about “active transportation”, and city planners working off inertia trying widen Bronson. Le. Sigh.

    1. Was the man from Delcan an engineer? Sometimes the engineers call themselves “transportation planners” but they’re really engineers.

      We’ve got to a sad state in this city when the engineers are messing around with planning.

      My guess is that it is engineers at the City (calling themselves “transportation planners”) who want to widen Bronson, while the few bona fide transportation planners kicking around don’t have any actual power to do anything because they’re not engineers. So they dream up what things might be nice to look like, but they then need to consult the engineers again.

      Ottawa’s engineers are horribly bureaucratic. Anyone who has got any nostalgic ideas of engineers being the successors of the creative types who invented steam engines, designed canals and built magnificent bridges in the past needs to be disabused of that. Today’s engineers are less about “applied science” than about the application of bureaucracy to engineering.

      At least planners are still vaguely creative: anyone read a planning rationale recently for exceeding every known zoning restriction in existence? Or how it is that the planner for each and every developer/speculator has a rationale for extending the urban boundary to encompass every conceivable parcel currently adjacent the urban boundary? Pure creativity… fantastical rationalizations that would put daydreaming children to shame. But when was the last time you read an engineering report detailing the rationale for reducing minimum lane widths? Right, you haven’t.

      The Laurier SBL was one of the few occasions in which the bona fide transportation planners actually managed to get something done.

  3. Thanks, I good a good laugh out of your post comparing city staff to panholdlers. Interesting, as always.

    I’ve enjoyed a fair bit of contact with city staff as facility manager, outdoor rink operator, and community association president. I have friends who work for the city.

    Generally I find that the front-line people doing the actual work are FANTASTIC – the taxpayer is lucky to have them.

    Their supervisors? Sometimes, not so much.

    Many are hardworking and competent. But some middle-level managers, especially when they morph into bureaucrats – my impression is that we’re not always getting our money’s worth.

    The people at the top? It gets harder to distinguish a top manager from a career politician. Ugh.

    I too was at Spring.Bike.Ottawa. City staff made excellent presentations. I think they’re doing a lot of solid practical work to improve cycling. They too are perhaps frustrated at the car-centric decisions that are made at the top behind closed doors.

    I especially enjoyed Zlatko’s presentation. The guy with “the best name ever” has done A LOT for cycling in Ottawa, both as a CfSC volunteer and as a smart city planner. And I was really impressed with Gord, Rob and Sgt. Ferris, and the cycling safety people from the Envirocentre.

    other takes on Spring.Bike.Ottawa:

    * another Eric

    * Ottawa Citizen

    * my Bells Corners-centric version

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