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August 18-31
VOL.14 ISSUE. 26

Narrative Fail

Nathan Raine
Published Thursday April 16, 03:38 pm
Downtown’s problem is more perception than panhandling

 group of four to five panhandlers approach somebody and actually following them while asking for money,” he says.

But when asked if he feels the perception of the dangers downtown is accurate, he couldn't agree.

“No. The perception does not reflect the reality of what's occurring in downtown Saskatoon. We still have a very safe downtown,” says WeigThis past March, Saskatoon’s downtown — along with the Broadway area, Riversdale and every other area put together — accounted for a total of zero assaults by a panhandler.

But the perception remains that panhandlers are making the downtown a very dangerous place — and on March 31st, Saskatoon Chief of Police Clive Weighill announced that due to rising public pressures, officers from the drug, gang and traffic units would be reassigned to patrol downtown. In total, 24 officers will be reassigned to the streets by July.

This comes on the heels of a serious stabbing attack outside the Scotiabank Cineplex Theatre on Feb. 13th. The victim, a 48-year-old businessman, Kelly Lutz, later said that he believes Saskatoon needs increased security downtown.

And it seems that a lot of Saskatoon would agree. Numerous reports have popped up over the past several months about pedestrians in the downtown area being frightened by “aggressive panhandling,” as well as panhandlers operating in “packs.”

Online comment sections on local news sites now seem a breeding ground for poorly informed opinions, knee-jerk conservatism, and thinly veiled classism. Comments on the CBC story on the Lutz stabbing included things like “downtown Saskatoon is a brutal and increasingly dangerous place to be,” “the core is being overrun by homeless,” “[the Lighthouse] houses a good number of criminals,” and “get rid of the Lighthouse and move them elsewhere.”

“We've been getting mounting pressure for the last six or seven months,” says Weighill. “I've received complaints from the Downtown Business [District], complaints from some of the patrons of the bars along 2nd Ave. and the theatre on 2nd Ave. And, I'm getting complaints about people being approached at the malls downtown, and other areas downtown.”

Although he doesn’t admit to being frustrated over the redeployment of officers downtown, Weighill, in his announcements, did have a palpable sense of contention over the entire thing, saying in a press conference that although police resources are limited, he didn't have much choice.

The “perception” of danger, he says, is what seems to be the issue.

“There is a valid concern for perception of safety. And perception is reality. I mean, we’ve had complaints of aggressive panhandlers, and I think the most serious one is a hill. “But I think it's incumbent on us that, if people are feeling intimidated, that we should put more resources into that area, have a higher visibility. The feeling of safety is integral to any police service — whether you're looking at crime prevention, or any aspects of policing, people want to feel safe.”

While Weighill says it's his job to move resources according to the need, it's at the cost of other areas that actually really need support.

“We have quite a dichotomy going on here. In the city we're seeing an increase in gangs, drugs and violence. And what's happening with the redeployment is that we're going to have to pull some people out of those units, and put more officers back on the street to do regular patrol-work. It's a dichotomy of making people feel safe, [while still] trying to get on top of drugs and gangs,” he says.

Although Weighill calls downtown Saskatoon safe, a mounting narrative that says panhandlers pose a major threat causes areas like the drug and gang units to suffer. Weighill says that the redeployment will make a difference on how investigations are done, how quickly they can respond, and sometimes how effective they turn out to be.

“We certainly had no major incidences, other than the last one there a while ago [the Lutz stabbing], where people are coming forward saying they've been assaulted. My message, is it safe downtown? Yes,” he says.

Darrell Lechman, executive director at SCYAP (located on 3rd Ave.) is downtown every day, and says he's had absolutely no concerns with safety in the area.

“I've got an issue with this whole 'threat' thing, because I just don't see it. The City has other things to worry about, and the fact that they are taking officers off other units to satisfy a few people downtown is just mind-boggling,” he says.

“I know that a number of the people are [panhandling] on the street. You get people saying they're afraid to go downtown because of the panhandlers, but half of those people on the streets are more afraid than anyone. A lot of them are vulnerable,” says Lechman. “Quite frankly, I think that the people who are complaining about feeling that it’s dangerous downtown are bullshitting.”

Colleen Dell, a Sociology professor at the University of Saskatchewan, says that once these narratives take hold it's quite difficult to reverse them.

“These false narratives are based on a lack of knowledge and understanding. What's really critical is that when people don't have an understanding, they judge,” says Dell. “We need to re-examine what our preconceived opinions are. Once we understand that not everyone lives or copes the way you do, not everyone has the same opportunities, we will function better as a society.”

Complaining, Dell says, isn't going to provide a long-term solution.

“I think it takes time. Complaining isn't a bad thing, but we can't change if we're just blaming the individual. Poverty and homelessness isn’t an individual problem, it’s a problem of our community. But that's where we seem to get stuck sometimes.”

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