14 September 2011

Streets Apart!

If you have read some of my other posts you will know that I am fairly new to Canada and in particular to the city of Winnipeg. I believe this gives me opportunity to observe and comment on subjects that some residents of Winnipeg may not see the same way or even notice the way I do. In this particular post I am going to talk about 'street people' here in Winnipeg compared to my experience's back in England.

Firstly I should point out that I understand this is a problem for many cities worldwide and that it is getting worse. I also understand that a lot of street people do not choose the street as a way of life, in fact many of them have mental issues, drugs related problems, suffer abuse both physical and mental and the list goes on. This post is not about the 'why' people are living on the streets or how they get there, nor is this post intended to be political argument although I am sure people will have strong views on this subject and by all means leave a comment.

So what is this post about? Let me give an you an example!

I am outside my workplace having a smoke and along comes this middle aged man picking cigarette butts up off the floor, and it took me a few seconds to realize that this was a street person. So why have I used the word realize here? I tell you because it took me a moment to process in my head the demeanour, appearance and character of this person. This person was wearing what looked to be a fairly new pair of jeans that appeared to be clean, a decent enough top on, clean in appearance, shaven etc. My sudden realization that this was a street person jolted my English instinct to suddenly kick in. I mentally prepare myself for the inevitable question, 'Can I have a cigarette?' or some other variant of this line of enquiry. However it did not come, instead the guy picks a suitable enough cigarette butt off the floor nearby, approaches me and asks, 'do you have a light?'. There was no 'have you got a spare cigarette?', 'have you got any spare change for a bus or cup of tea' (yes tea! I am English). I pulled out my cigarette packet because that day is where I was storing my lighter and again my Englishness kicked in, I am thinking, 'now when this guy see's that I have cigarette's in my packet THEN he will ask me for one', but no! He uses my lighter on his cigarette butt, thanks me and carries on looking for more butts.

You see, in England dealing with street people is a different experience as a generalization. Street people are more forthcoming with their requirements from general public. It is almost like street people in England expect to be given change, given a cigarette and so on to the point where I have gotten quite a vocabulary of stock answers that I use when confronted with street people in England. Generally street people in the cities of England are different in appearance and demeanour compared to the city of Winnipeg. The street people of England seem harder, rougher, more dishrevelled and have a harder nose when it comes to asking the public for money or cigarettes.

This is not the only experience I have had with street people here in Winnipeg, I am now becoming more aware of these people. But if these same people were taken out of the Winnipeg city environment and placed in an English city environment I would not blink twice if I saw these people in my local pub. Maybe this says more about pubs in England than anything else but my point being there is a difference in street people here in Winnipeg compared to what I am used to in England.

So, I had a little look into this subject and the usual reasons for street people are the same, rich get richer, investment in higher property prices within city dwellings, condo's, apartments, drugs, mental health issues, the list goes on. Also because of the many variable's as to why people become street people it difficult to find a specific number of street people within a city for a direct comparison between Winnipeg and other UK cities. But what I did find was this old article. No need to read it all but what I found of interest that MAY have some rational as to why street people here in Winnipeg do not approach the public in the same way as they do in England. This is a snippet from the document:
'Winnipeg was the first city to turn hardening attitudes into tougher legislation and in 1995 passed a by-law restricting public begging. Those who violated the by-law could be fined up to $1,000 or spend up to six months in jail. Winnipeg’s by-law became the general model and variations of it were enacted in major Canadian cities throughout the rest of the 1990s with local police forces rigorously enforcing it.'
I was not aware of this until I looked into it, so perhaps this is why there is such a difference with street people here in Winnipeg or Canada generally compared to England and the UK. I am not really aware of such enforcement towards begging acted upon in England and I wonder if this includes busking or some other street performance? However, is this legislation here in Winnipeg the reason I have a different experience with street people compared to UK? Can it be just this? Sure if street people are caught begging they get a fine, and so what? No home address to send the fine to. Maybe they get thrown in jail? Yeah a warm cell for the night!

I have no conclusion to this subject other than what I write now, but there has to be some reason(s) why my experiences with street people here are different than in the UK. If anyone has any information or thoughts on this or perhaps as a Canadian visiting the UK and having experience with UK street people then I would be really interested to hear your thoughts and opinions.