PETERBOROUGH — As the city responds to a raft of pressing social issues — including a severe housing and homelessness crisis — many low-income residents are spending their time downtown, where nearly all the local social services are located.
Downtown is also home to the majority of independent shops in Peterborough. In recent years, tensions have arisen between business owners and their customers on the one hand, and low-income people on the other. Terry Guiel, executive director of the Downtown Business Improvement Area (DBIA), has heard complaints that the presence of panhandlers chases away customers and hurts sales. His organization has tried a number of initiatives to address the issue in recent years, but without any emerging as a long-term solution.
In 2011, the DBIA installed kindness meters, which are repurposed parking meters that collect small change donations for charities. They were intended to discourage panhandling by giving people an alternative way to donate their change to a good cause. Critics said they reinforced the stereotype that panhandlers can’t manage their own funds. Guiel objected that they simply weren’t effective: the DBIA removed the meters because they were raising so little money.
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Last summer, the DBIA piloted a more ambitious initiative, hiring three private security guards to patrol the downtown streets in an effort to make the area feel safer and more welcoming. The DBIA called them “ambassadors,” rather than guards, and stressed that they would help and support marginalized users of the downtown, as well as shoppers.
But the plan was controversial: a local man started a petition calling for the an end to the program, arguing that the guards would “push poor people out of public spaces in the interests of downtown businesses, leading to intimidation, harassment, and the criminalization of those facing mental illness, poverty, and homelessness.”
The initiative wasn’t renewed after its pilot run.
This summer, the business improvement area has teamed up with Warming Room Community Ministries, a local homeless shelter, to try a new approach: hiring people on low incomes to clean up the streets. Guiel calls it a more inclusive way to tidy up downtown Peterborough.
Eleven cleaners are on the job so far, and they earn $16.50 an hour for tasks including cleaning up cigarette butts, erasing graffiti, and sweeping sidewalks. Everyone on the team has experienced barriers to finding employment, such as homelessness and addiction. Two outreach workers support the team and also help anyone who is downtown and struggling with addiction, mental health, or other challenges to connect with services that might help.
The One City program launched last month, and it is financed for a four-month pilot period. Funding comes from the DBIA, the city’s social services department, the local chapter of the United Way, and some private contributions.
“I live in Peterborough, and I use these streets all the time, so I prefer to have them clean,” says Charles, one of the cleaners, during a shift. “It’s a small difference, but it’s a difference nonetheless.”
Carol Annis, another of the cleaners, has her first new job in many years. “I haven’t worked in 10 years before now, so it’s really nice to find work,” she says.
The program aims to minimize resentment directed toward panhandlers and other low-income people in Peterborough’s core. “The more we build relationships with those who are different from ourselves, the more we no longer feel uncomfortable,” says Christian Harvey, director of Warming Room.
“You can see the relationships starting to build,” says Ashley Bonner, one of the outreach workers supporting the program. “More community members are interacting with the team.”
Annis says that’s been true in her case. “On our first shift we had at least six people thank us for what we were doing,” she says. “That was really uplifting and really motivating.”
Beyond Peterborough, Guiel said other business improvement areas in Ontario are already reaching out to learn more about the One City initiative.
Meanwhile, Harvey says the cleaners are energized by the opportunity to earn income while contributing to the downtown area in a visible way. “The excitement this week in the first few shifts has just been palpable,” he says. “People have been pumped. They’ve come in ready, and they’ve left excited.”
Will Pearson is a freelance journalist based in Peterborough.
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