COLUMN: Bicycles, shopping carts and perceptions

Cycle tourists are welcomed, while the poor among us are scorned

The other day in downtown Penticton, I noticed a man pushing a shopping cart filled with what probably amounted to all of his possessions.

I don’t know if he had a home or if he would need to find a safe place to spend the night.

He and others like him are the most vulnerable in our society.

Their presence makes some of us feel uneasy.

Some would like to see measures to keep them out of sight. Invisible. Others wonder how they can help those in this situation.

As I noticed this man, I wondered whether he would have been perceived differently if he had been riding a bicycle, with his possessions strapped to a rear rack.

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The question arises because for 11 years, from 2004 to 2015, I did quite a lot of cycle touring, mostly in southern British Columbia. I’ve stopped in many communities along the way, sometimes for a brief rest and sometimes to spend the night after a long day.

I carried roughly the same amount of stuff on my bike as this man in Penticton had in his shopping cart.

Not once was I treated as a pariah or an outcast.

If I happened to sit on a downtown sidewalk or lie in a shady spot in a city park, nobody ever asked me to leave the area. In fact, some would come up to me and ask me about my trip.

Why is someone pushing a shopping cart treated so differently?

Some might say that as a cycle tourist, I must have looked clean-cut and presentable.

But that wasn’t always the case.

I didn’t look all that good if I had spent the previous night or two camping off the side of the highway or if I had rolled into town after riding on a dirt road in the rain. Sometimes my bike and I were completely filthy. And sometimes I was a bit sweaty and smelly too. But I still wasn’t treated like a second-class citizen.

It could be argued that as a cycle tourist, I was still a productive member of society, enjoying a well-deserved vacation.

True enough. But there are also those who have quit their jobs to take an extended bike tour, and I don’t recall hearing criticisms of them. Maybe it’s because those who are on bicycle tours are spending money and supporting the economy in the communities they visit.

But that line of reasoning doesn’t wash either.

Some will take a room in a hotel or bed and breakfast and dine at local restaurants along the way. Others, however, will find roadside spots where they can camp for free. They might spend a few dollars on a bit of food when they pass through a town, but their economic impact is minimal.

Even for those who spend a lot on a trip, their impact on a town’s economy over one or two days is not as great as that of someone who lives in a town permanently—even if the permanent resident is quite poor.

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But cycle tourists are treated much better than the poorest of the poor.

In Penticton, there is a proposed bylaw which would impose fines on those sitting or lying on certain city sidewalks.

Other B.C. communities are also working to address homelessness in their communities—especially when homeless people or homeless camps become visible enough to attract attention.

And some of the comments I hear about the poorest of our poor take on a sneering, derogatory tone.

There are no easy answers when it comes to addressing poverty in our communities. This is a complex issue facing us, and it’s one we need to address. But my question isn’t about poverty as much as it is about perceptions.

Why is a person pushing a shopping cart in a downtown area treated differently from a person riding a heavily-laden bicycle along the same streets?

John Arendt is the editor of the Summerland Review.

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