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Loitering problems need proactive solutions

Jul 29, 2014 12:15 pm

Summer is here and while the warm days are welcome, it is more common at this time of year to see people hanging out on the street. There is no law against people sitting and enjoying the fresh air, nor should there be.

But when the loitering turns to panhandling, aggressiveness towards bystanders, openly using substances or other inappropriate public behavior, it’s a problem. This issue has been the subject of a few articles in the past weeks, as well as an online discussion on St. Paul Journal social media.

Addictions, dependence on the state, mental health challenges and more pose huge challenges for some people to take up reliable employment, leaving them at loose ends, even when jobs are plentiful.

The idea of fining or imprisoning people who suffer from such problems is simple and straightforward – make the loiterers hurt and maybe they won’t hang out on the street anymore. However, with fines, people can’t always afford to pay and can end up in jail on the taxpayer’s dime, putting more strain on prisons that are increasingly overcrowded and unsafe.

And more prison time for criminal offences may mean people are more likely to reoffend once they are released. Punitive measures are not a long-term solution to solving problems like crime, homelessness, addiction or poverty.

This week’s Journal reports on the planned closure of the St. Paul Legal Aid office, and chronic underfunding from the province leading to a crisis for the Alberta Legal Aid Society. This is just one example of the shortsightedness that will likely exacerbate the problems that we see on the streets of St. Paul.

We need to address the root causes that result in people scrounging for life on the street curb. It will take a long, concerted effort of investing in social services, in abuse counseling, in anti-poverty measures, etc., rather than the current reactive attitude of locking offenders away and throwing away the key.

It is not only the more sensible, proactive move, but it is the more compassionate one as well.

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