Recently while driving in downtown Toronto, I witnessed an unusual sight. A homeless man was being issued a ticket by a police officer for no apparent crime. He wasn’t holding a squeegee or harassing a stranger, but simply had a sign asking for some change from passing motorists. It is an increasing occurrence in many of Canada’s large urban areas, where poverty is now criminalized and homelessness has become a law enforcement matter, rather than a social issue. No longer are the poor regarded with sympathy, but with suspicion.
In 1999, Ontario passed the Safe Streets Act (SSA), designed to address the problem of aggressive panhandling and solicitation. Looking back over the past decade, the law seems to have done its job. There has been a steady decrease in panhandling, but now a new issue has arisen: excessive ticketing. A recent study co-authored by professors at York University and the University of Guelph found that between 2000-2010 in Toronto, there was a 2000% increase in fines imposed on the homeless. Those in our society lacking basic shelter were issued $65 fines for minor offenses. Ticketed for sleeping on sidewalks. Ticketed for panhandling pedestrians. Black and Aboriginal youth in particular received even greater attention, sometimes ticketed for “walking down the street” or simply “hanging with their friends”.
Black and Aboriginal youth in particular … sometimes ticketed for “walking down the street” or simply “hanging with their friends”.
Needless to say, many are unable to pay the amount, resulting in thousands of dollars in fines. This often leads to a negative effect on their credit rating, which then prevents an individual from renting an apartment or acquiring a cell phone contract, the crucial first steps in breaking out of poverty.
It should be noted that policing strategies and government policies do not exist in a vacuum. Public fears about the danger and criminality of homeless people allow for this type of social profiling. The original SSA was created amidst a climate of moral panic in Toronto when many residents associated panhandlers and squeegeers with petty street crime—a sentiment shared by the city’s mayor at the time, Mel Lastman who described squeegee kids as “thugs and criminals”.
In order for any change to occur on a policy level, there needs to be first a shift in public attitude. When a homeless person is sitting casually on a sidewalk or park bench, their presence can often go unnoticed. We are not threatened or bothered by their existence. It is only when they attempt to make money—either through panhandling or squeegeeing—that they become visible to us, and it is our prejudices that trigger either a positive or negative reaction. If we regard the homeless as a public nuisance or potentially dangerous, then the solution lies with men in badges and gavels. It will make them invisible once more, but this only masks the symptoms, never addressing the root cause. But if we think of homelessness as a structural and systemic issue, then the problem becomes larger than the individual. Their lives are not invisible to us because we acknowledge a social failing that contributed to their present condition.
Ultimately, our policies do need to change along with our attitudes. A society reveals its values in how it treats its poorest, and imposing fines on the indigent should be abhorrent to us all. The homeless occupy public spaces because they lack private ones. If we further exclude them from city streets, parks, and alleyways, where do they have left? Too often our focus is on emergency services such as drop-in shelters and soup kitchens, but the real investment will need to be made in prevention and affordable housing. In fact, giving the homeless a place to live can actually cost less than our current spending on them, if taking into account their impact on health care and the justice system.
At the time that I witnessed the homeless man receiving a ticket on the side of the street, I was less familiar with this issue than I am now. I had not read any studies, or conducted research on the criminalization of poverty. But when I recall the incident, my immediate visceral reaction was that it was something fundamentally wrong. That despite the slight annoyance it may cause some motorists, begging for change at a traffic stop should not be illegal. Having thousands of people sleeping on the streets every night should be illegal.