A city committee made up of councillors has decided against creating a bylaw that would be used by municipal enforcement officers to fine people who ask for money in aggressive, intimidating, and dangerous ways.
The committee is instead asking council to request the Windsor police be more proactive in addressing unsafe behaviour by people on city medians and ask city staff to come forward with ways to change those medians to prevent people from standing on them.
City staff researched the bylaw on the request of council in a move spearheaded by councillor Fred Francis that was supported by mayor Drew Dilkens who made it part of his re-election campaign in 2022.
The administrative report showed police in Windsor-Essex laid 199 charges under existing legislation between 2019 and 2022 and that only 10 people paid those fines.
Nearly 40 percent of the charges laid went against four offenders, according to the repot, including one person who was charged 30 times in four years.
The report included charges under Ontario's Safe Streets Act which limits areas where people can ask others for money and allows police to charge people that ask in an aggressive or intimidating manner.
Experts say more supports are needed
Shelley Gilbert, interim director of Legal Assistance Windsor, told the committee on Wednesday that council should not move forward with a bylaw.
Gilbert said the city should instead advocate for increases to Ontario Works and Ontario Disability Support Program, which she said do not allow people receiving those benefits to afford living.
She also highlighted why people would not pay the fines associated with charges that already allowed under current provincial legislation.
"Poverty and the need for food is going to outweigh the potential deterrent of that fine" said Gilbert.
"Food will outweigh that fine."
Shelley Gilbert says there needs to be more advocacy work to support people on social assistance. (Chris Ensing/CBC)
Executive director of Family Services Windsor-Essex Joyce Zuk said that there needs to be increases to Ontario Works and Ontario Disability Support Program to help people experiencing poverty.
She also highlighted the urgent need for more housing in the city and that council needs to consider how it's spending tax payer dollars.
"Re-paving roads and potholes is critical, absolutely, and I know that I'm at the committee that deals with some of those things," said Zuk, appearing before the city's Environment, Transportation and Public Safety Committee.
"But when we have people in our community that are really suffering, that are showing that because they're on our city's streets, I think that's something that requires addressing."
Police say they are prioritizing education first
Part of the push for this bylaw was to stop people from asking for money on the median of streets and not to approach vehicles.
Deputy Police Chief Jason Crowley said that people standing in the streets are a danger and that police can use Ontario's Safe Streets Act to get people out of unsafe positions.
Crowley said that the priority for police in these situations is to educate people before charging them.
"It's not an enforcement piece at first, it's to hook people up with services first."
A person asks for money at an intersection in Windsor. (TJ Dhir/CBC)
He said that statistics over the last decade show there wasn't a need to use the act in Windsor until 2018 when police started using the act to keep people on sidewalks.
Crowley told the committee that's when panhandling started to increase in the city alongside the visible signs of an increase in people experiencing issues with addiction.
He said that the Windsor police service may be "out of its line" when it comes to addressing social issues while highlighting the success the service has seen in its partnerships with Windsor Regional Hospital and Family Services Windsor-Essex, which pairs an officer with an outreach worker.
"We are certainly not going to arrest ourselves out of it but certainly anyone standing in the middle of the streets is a danger," he said.
"We have to keep people off the main thorough ways... so they can remain safe."
Looking for solutions
Downtown councillor Renaldo Agostino commended the work of city staff and community partners before putting forward his motion calling on police to do more under the current act and for city staff to look at changing infrastructure to discourage people from standing in city medians.
"There's people in the middle of the road that are putting themselves in danger," said Agostino.
"What I need to be assured of is that tomorrow someone is not going to get hit by a car and every day I feel like we're getting closer and closer to that point."
"There are people in the middle of the road that are putting themselves in danger," says downtown councillor Renaldo Agostino. (Chris Ensing/CBC)
He asked staff if there could be changes made to dangerous points on city roads to prevent people from standing in unsafe positions.
Staff said they have been shown a number of programs that can predict traffic movements but aren't aware of programs that can predict pedestrian behaviour.
"There's people in vehicles who are afraid they're going to hit somebody," said Agostino, who said he regularly sees people on streets and sidewalks moving in unpredictable ways.
He said that people can't ignore those issues and that the general public needs to report that behaviour.
"We need people to be aware and call 311 or call police... that's what I want to see from this."
Agostino said that he wants police to do what they can to get people out of danger alongside the general population.
"It's our duty to do that. We can't put people's lives at risk by just ignoring them."
He said he does not want to see police charge people who are panhandling but to enforce the Ontario Safe Streets Act in situations where people are acting in an unsafe manner.