|Lets say an organization representing narrow business interests in Calgary decides to berate an already marginalized and misunderstood group of people in the city. They launch a PR campaign that depicts these people as irresponsible bums who are useless and incapable of making good decisions.
Lets say the people of Calgary let this organization get away with their brutal propaganda campaign with nary a peep, even though said organization is using questionable information in its propaganda.
Of course, Im referring to the Calgary Downtown Association (CDA). And because the CDA has persisted so aggressively in its campaign against the poor with so little protest for so long, its time to call a spade a spade.
The CDA offers this not-so-eloquent defence of its stance to Calgarians: "No one should feel guilty about working hard for their money and not wanting to give it away." What a relief. Seeing all of these panhandlers about, one begins to think that Calgarians should actually be responsible for lending a hand to the needy members of our society. Not so, says the CDA: "Calgary is one of the most generous cities in Canada
. There is no need for anyone to go without, unless it is by addiction or by choice."
The CDA recommends that people give directly to agencies that help panhandlers instead of the panhandlers themselves. To be fair, this is a legitimate suggestion. What cant be taken seriously is the CDAs relentless and irrational kicks at people who are already down.
Again, from CDA propaganda: "If no one gave, there would be no panhandling." Yes, put the problem out of your mind and it goes away. Like magic! Kind of like Alderman Madeleine Kings suggestion to hide people lined up at homeless shelters behind awnings.
Through its campaign, the CDA basically warns against compassion and offering direct assistance to someone who visibly needs it. Here, according to the CDA, is how one is to interact with a panhandler: "Acknowledge the person. Politely say I gave at the office or I already gave. Then, continue on your way."
Presumably, if one gives to agencies that help the homeless in the city, its OK to walk around downtown like one has a Blackberry jammed tightly up ones posterior. Then there is the CDAs "research." According to the CDA website, 85 per cent of money given to panhandlers "feeds their addictions." Eighty-five per cent. Thats a high number, and a bold claim. One would hope the CDA could back it up especially when credible research presents very different findings.
In 2002, the Canadian Medical Association Journal (CMAJ) published a study on income and spending patterns among Toronto panhandlers. The study found that the typical panhandler had an income of about $640 a month, of which they spent $200 on food, $112 on tobacco, and only $80 on alcohol and/or illicit drugs. Only 31 per cent of their income was spent on alcohol, tobacco and drugs.
No similar study has been conducted in Calgary, but its worth noting that the CMAJ study was conducted by independent researchers, not people funded by narrow business interests. Small differences in the spending habits of panhandlers can be expected, however, not a difference of 54 percentage points. It doesnt fly, unless the CDA considers food an addiction.
The source given for the CDA statistic is "research gathered by the CDAs outreach worker." Richard White, the CDAs executive director clarified the point for me: there is no real research behind the 85 per cent statistic.
"Its more of (the outreach workers) personal observation," he admits. "Its not that weve interviewed the panhandlers or weve followed the panhandlers. Its just (the outreach workers) perception that thats what the majority of the money is being used for.
"Its not 50 or 60 per cent. It may be as high as 90, it could be as low as 75 or whatever you can saw it off wherever you want, but a significant percentage of the money is being used (on addictions)."
The CDA obviously wants to clean up the downtown to make it friendlier for business interests. Its a legitimate goal. Panhandlers in front of stores can often frighten away potential customers, and no one likes dealing with aggressive panhandlers. But why isnt the CDA honest about its motives, rather than making up statistics that have no credible basis?
It should simply say that its trying to make a better climate for business instead of casting itself as a benevolent organization that is trying to rescue panhandlers from their many, many addictions. The CDA should show some integrity here.
As it is, the organizations misguided campaign against the poor is deplorable and embarrassing. Much more so than the panhandlers the CDA loathes and berates. Its time for sensible Calgarians to stand up and say as much.
Jeremy Klaszus is the contributing editor at Alberta Views magazine. Watch Dawg is a semi-regular column that puts media and corporate activity under the microscope.