People experiencing homelessness are often referred to as common criminals who negatively impact the lives of law-abiding citizens. But research demonstrates that circumstances such as poverty, lack of housing, limited employment opportunities and hunger often lead individuals living on the streets to commit crimes. This suggests that the hardships of poverty and homelessness, not a predisposition to delinquent behaviours, precipitate criminal behaviour on the street. A range of factors, including education level, physical and mental health, work readiness skills and nutrition, impact a person’s ability to make money on the streets and affects the type of money-making strategy they adopt. Some people, by virtue of their situations, are excluded from competing in the formal economy for jobs and turn to quasi-legal strategies (panhandling, squeegeeing and sex trade) or illegal activities (theft, drug dealing) to make money and survive.
Organizations argue that insufficient and under-funded local mental health services have contributed to an increased criminalization of persons with mental illness. Because community mental health services receive very little as base budgets, people with mental illnesses and their families aren’t getting the community services they need to help them cope. In turn, pressures on the police, hospitals and other emergency services are increased. Although provision is currently made for specialized assessment, treatment and reintegration of mentally disordered offenders into society are hampered by a chronic lack of resources.
Police services, courts, and correctional facilities are not equipped to address issues unique to people experiencing poverty and homelessness. They are also not designed to substitute for health and social services. Police officers may not be properly trained to deal with the complex needs of people experiencing homelessness and individuals with mental illnesses, for example. Also, their powers - under provincial mental health laws - are restricted. Still, in many communities, police are forced to take on the role of mental health worker.
Recognition of the interconnectedness of mental illness, homelessness and the criminal justice system is a necessary first step in developing a course of action to address this growing social problem.