by Lauren Scott
“We don’t like that you’re homeless, so we’ll punish you for being homeless and next time you won’t be homeless.”
This is the backwards logic of the Ontario Provincial government’s Safe Streets Act (SSA), as explained by Toronto lawyer and activist Joanna Nefs. “You can’t fine someone out of addiction and poverty,” she says.
The SSA has ostensibly criminalized homelessness and made it nearly impossible for the homeless in Ontario to occupy public space.
In 1999, the Mike Harris Conservative provincial government enacted the Safe Streets Act as a direct response to the visibility of “squeegee kids.” This came after a series of mainstream news aired reports of drivers being “assaulted” by homeless and street-involved people who would work in high-traffic areas and clean car windows for money while vehicles were stopped.
Jim Flaherty, who has had a troubled history of overlooking social justice concerns over the course of his lifetime in politics, was the Ontario Attorney General when the Safe Streets Act became law.
“Our government believes that all people in Ontario have the right to drive on the roads, walk down the street or go to public places without being or feeling intimidated,” Flaherty said in 2000.
Toronto’s former Deputy-Mayor Doug Holyday proclaimed to the CBC in 2011 that citizens “shouldn’t have to tolerate this nonsense” and that we as a society should “give the police the power to clear these people out of the way.”
According to Canadian Observatory On Homelessness (COH) research, in the decade since the SSA was enacted, squeegeeing as a form of income is nearly invisible. In 1999, 29 per cent of COH’s street youth sample reported panhandling and squeegeeing as a means of earning money. Compare this figure to 2009 when less than three per cent reported that they actively engage in squeegeeing and 9.7 per cent report panhandling as a main source of income.
Today, the SSA, which in its intent was trying to address aggressive panhandling and violent crime (or at least its visibility), is predominantly used against non-violent petty offenses. In fact, 80 per cent of SSA tickets are for non-violent offenses such as trespassing.
The fines range from $60 to $500 per ticket. The COH estimates that in Toronto alone, city police handed out more than $4 million in fines between 2000 and 2010. Incidentally, it also cost the Toronto Police $1 million to enforce the SSA.
What happens when police issue tickets to people who cannot conceivably pay them? Exactly what you’d expect. They go unpaid. According to a 2014 study by the COH, 99 per cent of SSA tickets go unpaid.
“If you’re issuing tickets to homeless people, is there not something else you could be doing?” asked York University professor Stephen Gaetz.
Gaetz is the director of the COH and the Homeless Hub and president of the charity Raising the Roof. He argues that the Safe Streets Act, in its backwards logic, does the opposite of what its name suggests.
“If you are homeless, you are exponentially more likely to be a victim of crime than if you are housed,” Gaetz says. “The irony is that we have something called the Safe Streets Act that creates more harm for homeless people who are already very vulnerable. It’s upside-down logic.”
According to Corinne Sauve, a peer support worker at Youth Services Bureau Ottawa, the SSA pushes street-involved and homeless people out of public spaces and into greater danger. This disproportionately affects street youth as well as young people of colour.
“I’ve heard a lot about youth being harassed by the police and a lot of that was because of where they were,” Sauve says. “Basically if you’re not in a dark alley and you’re panhandling somewhere, you’re not in the right place.”
“We are just pushing them back into marginalization and danger when we don’t allow them access to public space the way ‘normal’ people are.”
In October, Gerry Williams, a formerly homeless man living in Toronto had accumulated $65,000 worth of tickets for “offenses” that were unavoidable in his case. Williams, who is recovering from a drug addiction, was given tickets for minor offenses such as trespassing, public intoxication and panhandling.
The Fair Change Legal Clinic represented Williams in his appeal of over 430 minor offenses. They are currently representing 15 other Toronto residents (with 10 others on the waitlist) who are fighting similar tickets that they cannot reasonably pay for.
Joanna Nefs is a lawyer and the founder of Fair Change. She spoke with the Leveller about what it was like fighting Williams’ case, the single largest case that Fair Change has ever taken on.
Yet, there are others who owe even more than Williams. Some are in so much debt that they have decided to give up.
“Gerry is not even the worst. I know someone who has $300,000 worth of tickets,” Nefs says. “He won’t let me fight them because he says it’s not even worth it.”
University of Guelph professor William O’Grady is an expert on legal responses to homelessness. He says that the current legal response to homelessness is not as effective as the social infrastructure we should be building.
“Homelessness should not be a legal issue. It should be a social justice issue, it should be a housing issue, it should be a human rights issue but it should not be a legal issue,” he says. “Giving a ticket to someone doesn’t take any time at all but building affordable housing does. Politicians like quick fixes, they don’t like long-term solutions.”
Ontario’s former Attorney General Michael Bryant has been vocal in speaking out against the SSA. He said the law “criminalizes homelessness” and says he feels a great sense of personal guilt for not repealing the law while in office.
“I failed. I am accountable. I have no excuses,” Bryant said at a news conference in 2014.
Bryant, along with O’Grady, Nefs and Gaetz are founding members of the Coalition for the Repeal of Ontario’s Safe Streets Act (CROSSA). Nefs says that their efforts have since stalled, as there seems to be no interest from the provincial government to act.
“It’s clear that it’s not a priority for the provincial government. We had meetings with them and they said they would have follow-up meetings and those meetings just never materialized,” said Nefs.
O’Grady says that this means we, as a society need to stand up to this injustice. While sharing stories like Williams’ $65,000 of tickets can be helpful, it will take more than just reading. More than just little newspapers like this one. It will take action.
“I think it needs to be more than a one-by-one basis…If it is more organized, then there would be more power behind it than just a paper picking up on the odd case where this happens,” says O’Grady. “I think if there was a collective action in support of this, it would turn more heads.”
If you or someone you know has been affected by the Safe Streets Act, please contact the Ticket Defense Program Ottawa to fight the unfair fines in the Ottawa Area. 613-744-2892 x 5366, with bi-weekly drop-ins at the Ottawa Mission and Centretown Community Health Centre
They also offer free legal consultation to anyone looking to fight tickets they may have received, on the following dates:
12:00-14:00 Shepherds of Good Hope // 233 Murray Street
14:30-16:30 Salvation Army // 171 George Street
11:00-13:00 Odawa Centre // 510 Rideau Street
13:30-15:30 Centre 454 // 454 King Edward Street
12:30-14:30 Centre 507 // 507 Bank Street
You can also contact your local Member of Provincial Parliament (MPP) and ask for the repeal of the SSA.
- Hon. Yasir Naqvi, MPP (Ottawa Centre) 613-722-6414 or firstname.lastname@example.org
- Hon. Bob Chiarelli, MPP (Ottawa West—Nepean) 613-721-8075 or email@example.com
- Hon. Nathalie Des Rosiers, MPP (Ottawa—Vanier) 613-744-4484
NDesRosiers.mpp.CO@liberal.ola.org or NDesRosiers.firstname.lastname@example.org
- Hon. John Fraser, MPP (Ottawa South) 613-736-9573 or Jfraser.email@example.com
- Hon. Marie-France Lalonde, MPP (Ottawa—Orléans) 613-834-8679 or firstname.lastname@example.org
- Hon. Jack MacLaren, MPP (Carleton—Mississippi Mills) 613-599-3000 email@example.com
- Hon. Lisa MacLeod, MPP (Nepean—Carleton) 613-823-2116 or firstname.lastname@example.org
This article first appeared in the Leveller Vol. 9, No. 4 (January/February 2017).