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Squeezing squeegeers

The war against Halifax’s street peddlers has nothing to do with safety, and everything to do with criminalizing poverty.

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Meet Danielle Talbot,comic book stereotype of a squeegee kid. She's got a black hoodie, a black shirt, dark pants and a dog.

Talbot is 21. She left her New Brunswick home in her teens and has cleaned car windshields at intersections in cities across Canada off and on for seven years. She's been in Halifax two years and squeegees at the Willow Tree intersection "pretty much every day."

And here's the thing about Danielle Talbot. She is, by way of intelligence or experience, more articulate and well-spoken than practically every other 21-year-old I've met.

Huh. Whadda ya know.

Because squeegee kids are stupid, right? They're drug addicted. They're all on welfare, even though they're perfectly capable of working. And they don't work because they're lazy. No, no, really. It says so right on the web site for The Daily News, in a slew of reader comments following a December 14 story about Bill 7, which came into law January 1 and amended the Nova Scotia Motor Vehicle Act, to prohibit anyone stepping off the sidewalk to "stop or approach a motor vehicle for the purpose of offering, selling or providing any commodity or service or soliciting the driver or any other person in the vehicle." (Legalese-free? Shove off squeegee kids. You're illegal.)

"I'm getting tired of watching these people stand around looking for free handouts because they don't want to take on the responsibility of a real job. I'm sure there are those that are truly destitute, but I'm also pretty certain they are in the minority. I'd wager they are young rebels that didn't agree with mommy and daddy's rules, left home and suddenly realized it's a tough world out there. They don't get things handed to them on a silver platter, they got mixed up with the wrong people and now they have resorted to begging for money. I worked for it, why should I give it to someone on a street corner that'll probably end up using it for drugs?"

"Squeegie Adult: Annoyance at best, refusing to work, likely not educated, certainly not paying taxes, and probably sucking at the public teat on welfare."

"Each and every one of them should be ashamed to show their faces."

Danielle Talbot? She plans to enroll at Dalhousie in September. And she wants to study law. She was one of the people who stuck by and helped attend to a 66-year-old woman who was attacked and beaten by three table leg-wielding girls on the Halifax Common last August.

Are you pleasantly surprised Talbot's interested in an education? Does it warm your heart to know that she didn't just sit by and let the woman scramble for help?

Well, you might not be inclined to fits of incendiary online ranting, but it shows something about you if you're surprised Danielle is smart and kind. It lays bare your assumptions about people who choose to squeegee as clearly as the put- 'em-all-in-jail keyboard pounders demonstrate theirs; it shows that you think squeegeers are dumb, addicted and lazy. Oh, and don't forget aggressive. We can't forget aggressive.

Because after all, this is a story about threat.

It's not about the much-bandied-about threatening actions of aggressive squeegeers. Not directly, anyway. And it's not about the opposite, either—the threats squeegeers face out on the road. "They yell at you," Talbot says. "They bang on their windows. Sometimes they get out of their cars and sometimes they hit you."

The threat that lies at the heart of this story is the threat of the different. It's the threat of adults who don't slot handily into the nine-to-five world. It's their clothes and their hair and their travelling and their dogs.

Most of all?

Most of all, it's their poverty. Right there, out in the open for the whole world to see. Poverty. Uncovered at the Willow Tree intersection while the rest of the world jogs by for another kilometre around the Common, drives up Quinpool for the daily commute or sips wine at a table inside Seasons Bistro at the Holiday Inn Select.

"People want an arm's-length distance," says Reverend Gary Thorne, diocesan chaplain of Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island and a board member of Metro Non-Profit Housing and Community Action on Homelessness. "What they can't stand is looking in the eyes of the poor."

"If I need something, I go out ," Talbot says. "If I need to eat, or if I need to pay rent."

Talbot is on welfare, yes. "Try living on $560 a month. With my rent, my bills, I don't have any money. I live in an $850 apartment with my roommate."

Do that math. It's scary.

Talbot won't say how much she makes at the Willow Tree any given day, but the change helps to pay the bills and it helps her afford every-once-in-a-while extras: "Is it a crime for me to have a beer?...Why can't I go eat Chinese food?"

Talbot doesn't eat out much.

In testimony before the Nova Scotia Utility and Review Board in April 2007, Mount Saint Vincent University professor and nutritionist Patricia Williams shared research proving people on welfare can't afford to pay for basic expenses, let alone wonton soup and a beer.

According to Williams, a single adult male on welfare in 2006—paying less than $450 for combined rent, heat and power—eating a "National Nutritious Food Basket" (that's a standardized tool developed by Health Canada expressing the cost of basic, nutritious diets based on age and gender) came up with a deficit of $300 a month. And that's not, Williams testified to the Utility and Review Board, including "personal hygiene products, household and laundry cleaners, dental and prescriptions, costs associated with physical activity, education or savings for unexpected expenses."

Single women the age of Danielle Talbot in the same situation would face just less than that $300 deficit every single month.

No wonder poverty is frightening.

But rather than inspiring compassion, the fear of poverty manifests itself too often as a fear of poor people. That fear is given life as a palpable dread surrounding the poor who live among us. Or, at least, those who dare to show themselves.

It's natural to shy from what you fear. And when you can't get away from it? When fear confronts you on your daily commute? When staring straight ahead or fiddling idly with the radio dials doesn't work? (Talbot admits, sometimes, she does squeegee people's windshields without asking: "I could spend an hour and no one says "Yes.' Everyone says "No, no, no.' And at some point, you're just going to wash someone's window.") What do you do then?

When you can't get away from what you fear, you get your fear away from you.

That's what Danielle Talbot says Bill 7 is about—"it's just that they don't want to see us."

"They want them out of their lives, out of their horizons," says Reverend Gary Thorne, who was one speaker before the law amendments committee's public forum on Bill 7.

Thorne says squeegeers are an important part of this city: "They add so much. They remind us of our dependence on others. They remind us of our vulnerability. These are things that many in our society don't like to be reminded of."

"I said that what the squeegee kids offer us is friendship and a mutuality; they offer to become part of the community in a non-threatening way."

Yet it's threat that runs thick through the justifications for Bill 7. It's a threat, the argument goes, to have squeegeers on the road—both to drivers and to the squeegeers themselves.

Safety was the reason Liberal justice critic Michel Samson gave for his party's change of heart on the squeegee issue. First the Liberals rejected Bill 7. The next week, they supported it. "There are legitimate safety concerns," Samson said (and he wasn't talking about a proven danger the amendment also happens to address—that no one can drive and text message or blab on a hand-held cell phone anymore).

All this safety bafflegab, despite the fact that, according to Claire McNeil, a staff lawyer at Dalhousie Legal Aid, "There was nothing disclosed as part of this bill showing incidents involving squeegee use where they themselves were placed at risk or motorists were placed at risk."

Ah, well, no matter, under Bill 7. The way the new amendment applies, people can be charged without even being shown to cause danger—they can be fined for just stepping off the sidewalk with a dripping squeegee. Under the existing Motor Vehicles Act, police had to have evidence of risk; even simple obstruction—just proof of getting in the way of a car—was sufficient to lay charges. "What this bill does," McNeil says, "is remove the obligation for them to actually prove that there's any risk to safety."

Danielle Talbot says, "I know that intersection. I know the light. I know exactly how many seconds I have to cross and wash a window. We know what we're doing. Most people out there have been doing this off and on for a long time. We know how to squeegee and we know how not to get hit by cars."

"We've heard politicians saying this is being done out of a concern for best interests," says lawyer Claire McNeil. "That has to be contrasted with the total failure to provide in this city real options in affordable housing."

The effort "over the course of the last few years," McNeil says, has been to muzzle kids who are living in poverty, to prevent them from carrying signs, to displace them, to try and ensure that they don't have access to public space. It's about hiding the problem any true risk to safety."

The safety argument runs thinner still, considering the amendment doesn't apply to permit-granted charity campaigns like Dalhousie University's annual September Shinerama canvass or CBC's annual December Feed Nova Scotia street drive, which both see people out in the streets, pausing traffic and collecting change.

Bill 7 doesn't remove risk from intersections. It aims to remove something more intrinsically threatening—people who don't fit in. People who are poor like Danielle Talbot. And people like Jonathan McAuley.

McAuley, like Talbot, might be seen as a living contradiction, if a more well-known one.

He's a squeegeer originally from the South Shore who's been in Halifax since 2001. He's lived in group homes and he's been to jail. He's also taught pottery to children, done public speaking in schools and received a Civilian Certificate of Merit from the Halifax Regional Police for chasing down the attackers of that 66-year-old woman who was assaulted on the Common last August.

Jonathan McAuley is the so-called good Samaritan squeegee kid.

Except he's no kid. He's 24. And he's painfully aware of the ridiculousness of the attention he's received from his simple act of common decency: "I wouldn't even have made it on to the news if I was anyone else."

McAuley's August actions made him the guy people drive by the Willow Tree and yell at. Right after the Common incident it was strangers screaming "Good job!" Then it was back to the occasional, "Get a job!"

Neither sentiment matters much to McAuley, he says. "Over the years I've managed to gain the ability not to give a shit what people think about me, primarily because they all think of me as a bum, as some kind of delinquent asshole."

McAuley doesn't squeegee because he's out of work or on welfare or homeless. He squeegees, mostly in the summer, because he likes to travel and he likes the flexibility. "Everyone wants to have their own hours, that's for sure," he says.

This winter, when he's not too tired from working 10 or 11 hours a day as an $8-an-hour dishwasher, McAuley will pick up his squeegee to make a little extra cash. It's a job he defends vigorously.

"Some people do some pretty dumb, easy jobs," McAuley says. "And squeegeeing is no different from any other dumb, easy job that's out there."

He calls his work at the Willow Tree a service. "Back in the day, there were full service gas stations. Someone would come around and clean your window, you'd give them a little tip. It's a new twist on an old situation."

McAuley is understandably reluctant to talk about how much he makes—the most I can get out of him is that it's possible to bring in $40 or $50 in less than seven hours. And, yes, it's tax-free; that hits at the heart of many who feel angry about squeegeers, and it's a reality about which McAuley is unrepentant. "A lot of people don't pay taxes," he says. "A lot of people work under the table."

And a lot of people under-report tips in restaurants and bars. And a lot of small business owners will take $5 for the bread or milk or chocolate bar you're buying, keep the till open, and slide the change across the counter without ringing in the sale. People will gladly pay the "cash and no receipt" price for their cordwood—from reputable, in-the-Yellow-Pages sellers—because it's cheaper. They're getting a deal, so they don't make a peep. But no one feels like they're getting a deal by giving tax-free twoonies to Jonathan McAuley.

McAuley says despite the Motor Vehicle Act amendments that now see squeegeers getting $50 fines for first offences, he'll be squeegeeing more, soon, "depending what my situation is when summer rolls around."

And Danielle Talbot has no plans to quit either. (It's not like similar legislation in other provinces has stopped squeegeeing. Ontario's Safe Streets Act was enacted in 1999.) "I like squeegeeing," Talbot says. "I feel better washing someone's window than sitting there grovelling for money...I'd rather offer somebody a service.

"That's the way we choose to live," she says. "That's the way we're going to live. You either understand it or, well, I don't quite know how to explain it."

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