Research Matters Blog
Youth represent one of the most vulnerable subpopulations living in homelessness. Many youth living in homelessness are fleeing situations of abuse, discrimination and violence. Service agencies that offer assistance in the form of shelters, counselling, and legal services are of the utmost importance to help these individuals move from crisis to newfound security. The below infographic, published by New York City service agency Safe Horizon, illustrates several eye-opening facts about youth who are homeless.
70% of youth surveyed left their homes to flee violence. This categorization includes fleeing both sexual violence and physical violence. Severe family conflict is a commonly reported reason for youth becoming homeless. Often, it may not be a matter of an individual choosing to leave their homes, but a matter of being forced out of their living situations. For example, homeless LGBTQ2 youth are often forced to leave home because their parents do not accept their gender and/or sexual orientation.
Like in NYC, LGBTQ2 youth are over-represented in Canada’s homeless youth population. While these individuals have to face the difficulties associated with living on the streets, they also have to face the additional stressor of identifying themselves as being LGBTQ2. Toronto is commonly advertised as a safe destination for LGBTQ2, but there are no dedicated shelters for LGBTQ2 youth in the city. Many LGBTQ2 youth go through facing homo/transphobia in the home and school setting and then go on to face discrimination in the shelter system. Many LGBTQ2 youth opt to sleep on the streets rather than in shelters, as they have experienced discrimination and/or violence in shelters. Specialized housing initiatives need to be developed to meet the needs of LGBTQ2 youth. There are currently no specialized housing initiatives that meet the needs of LGBTQ2 youth in Canada (while New York City alone is home to two drop-in shelters for LGBTQ2 youth: the Ali Forney Center and The New Alternatives Centre).
The infographic also illustrates a disturbing growing trend in the United States where homelessness, including youth homelessness, is being criminalized. Homeless people are generally viewed as being threats to public safety. This sweeping generalization directly impacts policy, law, and how the law is enforced. A recent report released by the National Law Center on Homeless & Poverty stated that 18% of cities surveyed had bans in place against sleeping in public, and over 50% of cities surveyed had laws banning sitting or lying down in public. Criminalizing homelessness benefits no one, funding housing solutions is far more affordable and constructive than jailing or fining individuals because of their living situation.
Criminalizing homelessness is no different from turning a blind eye to the actual causes of homelessness and the struggles associated with living on the streets. It’s important that our approach to youth homelessness is informed by research findings and the lived experiences of youth. This is made possible by promoting and participating in an ongoing dialogue between the public and youth. It’s critical that we support services that bridge the care gap that forced these youth into homelessness to begin with. The goals, aspirations and dreams of homeless youth are no less important than those of housed youth. Let’s support these youth, and services tailored to their needs, to help make their hopes for a stable and secure future a reality.
Let me get the confession out of the way. I voted against the Safe Streets Act 15 years ago, as an Opposition MPP for St. Paul’s, in mid-town Toronto. But when the time came that I was Attorney General, I failed to repeal the bill. It was a sin of omission for which I’m responsible and accountable. I was wrong, so now I seek the bill’s repeal, using what I learned in my time as a Cabinet Minister and MPP.
If I’d done my homework back in the day, I would have learned what organizations like the Homeless Hub and Justice for Children and Youth (JUST) have researched exhaustively: that the Safe Streets Act criminalizes poverty and mental illness, homelessness and addiction.
A ticketing offence that targets only the poor, the mentally ill and the homeless is, if nothing else, an offence that has an incurable systemic discrimination problem. If the only people being ticketed for texting while driving were, say, redheaded women, then the Chief of Police would have some explaining to do.
There is no form of profiling, based upon immutable characteristics, that can be justified under our Constitution, but also politically, in Canada at least. Racial profiling is not only contrary to our Charter of Rights, today it’s just politically indefensible for lawmakers and law enforcement. It follows that the Safe Streets Act, 1999 is indefensible, because the only people getting these tickets are indigent, mentally ill and addicted to drugs and alcohol.
We know this to be the case thanks to the excellent research to be found at the Homeless Hub. We know that the Safe Streets Act tickets handed out over the past 15 years have targeted, almost exclusively, homeless, mentally ill, and addicted persons. Put aside the constitutional and legal issues for the moment, and consider whether it is ever defensible to create an offence that, it turns out, only applied to people in poverty and pain.
Nevertheless, back in 1999, the Ontario Government of the day did exactly that. Fifteen years later, we know the effect of the law. It brings in almost zero revenue, 99% of the tickets are unpaid and unpayable. It puts some indigent people in jail, with the rest carrying fine debts that are literally impossible for them to address, if and when they are able to get better, and begin building a life with reliable housing, meaningful relationships, and eventually employment.
But still, some people continue to argue that the Safe Streets Act is necessary to address aggressive panhandling and unwanted squeegeeing on the streets. Put aside the empirical question of whether the complainants are not themselves complicit in allegedly aggressive behaviour; and whether the tickets change the level of aggression one iota. There is no need to enter into a debate about whether the Safe Streets Act is effective or justified. My point is that no provincial offence is ever justifiable where the rich get no tickets, and only the poor get ticketed. Full stop. To argue otherwise is similar to the debate around whether torture is effective in combatting terrorism.
But all that reasoning is not what woke me up to the wretchedness of this rotten bill. It was when I realized, years after I should have, that this law was targeting my friends, and then it was personal. These weren’t friends from law school, Bay Street or from Queen’s Park, but I’d defend them too if they faced systemic discrimination. (They don’t and never will). These were my friends from Sanctuary Toronto a place where people of all walks of life get together in kinship, to share dignity, friendship and a meal with street involved people.
Where once I’d felt estranged from those who live and panhandle on the streets, afraid of the unknown, now I see only friends and neighbours— often in pain, sometimes full of misplaced anger, but always more generous and noble than I can pull off on the best of days. I don’t know if our kinship means much to them, but it means everything to me. The kinship formed with that community changed my life. My perspective changed completely.
As Sanctuary’s Founder and Pastor Greg Paul explained to me: panhandlers need cash like everyone else, but there are no jobs for addicted, homeless, mentally ill people who are often ex-cons. So they panhandle out of necessity. They can sometimes get to a shelter, line up for food, scrounge for some donated clothing, but there’s one service that no government can offer: dignity, kinship, love. That’s where communities like Sanctuary Toronto come in. There are many such communities across this country, thank goodness.
Recently, a friend of mine from Sanctuary told me that he’d strung together enough sobriety to feel better enough to apply for a job. And he’d got it. But he needed to upgrade his drivers license to operate a forklift, and that meant dealing with thousands of dollars of unpaid Safe Streets Act tickets. As someone literally destitute, he obviously didn’t have any money to pay these fines. What a tragedy. The job he so needed and deserved was being denied him solely because of this rotten, rotten bill. Just imagine what that would feel like, particularly if you were trying to recover from a life in pain.
I dashed off an opinion editorial for the Globe & Mail, and contacted Professor Stephen Gaetz of the Homeless Hub. He could have reamed me out for not repealing the bill when I had the chance, but instead embraced the cause that he’d been fighting for since the bill’s passage in 1999. We agreed to launch a coalition, and the rest is hopefully history in the making.
Thanks to heroic social justice advocates, volunteers and professionals, the Coalition to Repeal the Ontario Safe Streets Act is now gaining momentum, and we urge everyone to join our efforts to convince the Ontario Government, and all Queen’s Park legislators, to repeal the Safe Streets Act, 1999. The law is indefensible, inhumane and unCanadian. Ontario has been ticketing people in pain and poverty for 15 years. It’s never too late to be what you might have been, said George Eliot, and it’s never too late to repeal a rotten bill.
“IF WE REPEAL THE SSA HOW WILL BUSINESSES AND COMMUNITIES BE ABLE TO ADDRESS UNWANTED PANHANDLING?”
It’s a fair question here is the answer
1. Other legislation exists to deal with behaviour that is problematic
Sections of the Highway Traffic Act (HTA) can be used to police dangerous behaviours.
The SSA creates the offence of “Soliciting on a roadway”, which carries with it a maximum penalty of 6 months in jail and $1000. Panhandlers who walk in live lanes of traffic can be a safety concern. This dangerous behaviour can be addressed by section 140(4) of the HTA which makes it an offence for a pedestrian to move into the path of a vehicle. The maximum penalty for this offence is $500, no jail time. Individual cities in Ontario also have by-laws that prohibit pedestrians from using roadways unsafely. By using these laws the dangerous behaviour can be addressed without penalizing people who are not behaving dangerously.
Sections of the Criminal Code can be used to address aggressive behaviour
The SSA also creates the offence of “Soliciting in an aggressive manner”. Again, aggressive behaviour can be dangerous to the public and intimidating for other pedestrians. But because of the way that the SSA is written, even if no one was actually intimidated or feeling harassed, the panhandler can still be convicted. Section 175(1) of the Criminal Code makes it an offence to impede or molest other persons in a public place. This law requires that the person charged actually offend a person. Using this law would, again, address dangerous behaviour and leave peaceful panhandlers alone.
In short, the SSA creates overly broad offences that capture behaviour that is not dangerous or disruptive to others. If the SSA were repealed police could use the more narrowly focussed pieces of legislation that already exist to address problematic behaviour.
2. There are already proven strategies that reduce homelessness
Through it’s overly broad language and its disproportionately steep penalties, the SSA actually increases homelessness. SSA convictions count against a person’s driving record making it impossible for people with outstanding SSA fines to obtain a job that requires driving, or a job that is away from public transit.
Additionally, if a person is housed and receiving housing assistance from the government, like disability support or Ontario Works, and they are jailed for a period longer than 30 days, that person will lose their housing funding and can be evicted.
There are proven methods of combating homelessness. Programs that focus on preventing homelessness and programs that address underlying causes have been shown to reduce homelessness. Supportive housing for people with mental health issues and addiction issues is a proven way of effectively combating homelessness. By focusing on these programs communities can address panhandling effectively without using the SSA.
For more information on proven strategies to fight homelessness read the 2014 report on homelessness in Canada here: http://www.homelesshub.ca/SOHC2014
The SSA is unnecessary and overly broad as a law enforcement tool. Repealing the SSA will not prevent communities from using more appropriate and focused laws to combat dangerous or intimidating behaviour.
SSA convictions limit employment opportunities and can cause the loss of housing. Both of which increase homelessness. Repealing the act will remove the negative side effects of SSA convictions and will help to abbreviate or prevent homelessness.
Reprinted with permission from Fair Change Community Services.
The Ontario Safe Streets Act (SSA) exists as one of the clearest and most obvious examples of the creation of new laws that contribute to the criminalization of homelessness. This provincial legislation, which came into effect in January 2000, in response to the growing visibility of homelessness in Toronto and other major cities in the 1990s, while never mentioning homelessness specifically, clearly targets homeless persons.
This December marks the 15th Year Anniversary of the SSA. The SSA has had a negative impact on the safety and wellbeing of people who are homeless or street-involved. Because homeless people have to do things in public spaces that housed individuals do not (e.g., sleeping, eating and drinking, making money), the SSA has disproportionately impacted homeless individuals, contributing to the criminalization of homelessness and poverty.
What is the Ontario Safe Streets Act?
The SSA (S.O. 1999, CH. 8) is designed to address panhandling, squeegeeing and other forms of solicitation undertaken in an “aggressive manner … a manner that is likely to cause a reasonable person to fear for their safety and security”. Unfortunately, the language of the act is rather vague, giving law enforcement officials broad discretion in its application. Moreover, suggesting enforcement is justified if it causes a person to be fearful can play to prejudices rather than real concerns. The law, while not explicitly mentioning people who are homeless, is clearly intended to target people of that status, and was framed based on similar legislation from the United States that had the intention of criminalizing homelessness, or the activities that people who experience homelessness engage in as a means of survival.
Why is this bad policy and practice?
Issuing tickets to homeless people is a counter-productive way of dealing with a poverty issue
People who are homeless do not choose to be homeless. The research evidence indicates that a lack of affordable housing, combined with the inadequacy of necessary supports for those dealing with health, mental health, disability, violence and addictions issues means that many people become homeless. Moreover, many are forced to inhabit public spaces to meet basic needs such as sleep and income generation. The way to deal with these social and economic issues is to ensure that people have access to safe and affordable housing, as well as necessary supports to maintain their housing. Using law enforcement to deal with poverty is bad policy and practice.
Homeless people cannot pay SSA fines
Homeless people panhandle for small change because they have no money. So why would we give people in this situation a fine? The SSA calls for fines of up to $500 for a first offence, and for imprisonment up to 6 months plus $1000 for any subsequent offence. People who are sentenced to more than 30 days in jail lose any social assistance they would normally receive for housing, and can be evicted. This way people who have housing are forced back onto the street.
A recent study identified that the number of SSA tickets issued in Toronto in 2009 was 13,023, while the total number over eleven years (2000-2010) was 67,388. The total value of the tickets in 2009 was minimally $781,380, and over eleven years more than four million dollars ($4,043,280). This is a large financial burden placed upon homeless people living in extreme poverty. Many individuals, over time, accumulate hundreds and even thousands of dollars in fines that they are unable to pay. Involvement in the Criminal Justice System makes it even more challenging for homeless individuals to engage in education, training and/or the labour market. Furthermore, convictions for panhandling count against your driving record so the Act makes it harder for homeless people to find jobs, keeping them on the street longer. And when jail is imposed for panhandling, people can lose the housing they do have and be forced back onto the street, actually increasing homelessness.
Panhandling and squeegeeing have been on the decline for a decade, yet the number of tickets issued in Toronto continues to rise
Two significant pieces of research, including one by the City of Toronto, show that incidences of panhandling and squeegeeing have been declining over the past decade. Yet the number of tickets issued continues to rise. This suggests that this ticketing has more to do with the visibility and status of people who experience homelessness, rather than their infractions.
The Safe Streets Act does not actually address aggressive solicitation
A review of SSA tickets issued by the Toronto Police Services between 2004-2010 shows that 20% of tickets issued were for “aggressive solicitation,” while the remaining 80% of tickets were for non-aggressive acts that have been criminalized under the SSA. This suggests that despite its stated purpose, the SSA is not actually being implemented to address aggressive panhandling and soliciting.
The Safe Streets Act is not cost-effective
The SSA is expensive to implement. Research suggests that implementing the SSA cost Toronto Police Services $936,019 between 2000-2010. The fines imposed for panhandling are almost never collected (only $8,086.56 in fines were paid over that same period), but taxpayers are still paying for the courtroom, the Justice of the Peace, the testifying police officer and the prosecutor to have the fines imposed.
Public fears of homeless people do not justify the use of law enforcement
In announcing the Safe Streets Act in 1999, the government of the day proclaimed: “Our government believes that all people in Ontario have the right to drive on the road, walk down the street or go to public places without being or feeling intimidated. They must be able to carry out their daily activities without fear. When they are not able to do so, it is time for government to act”. While at face value, this may seem to be a worthy sentiment, in reality it is a very flawed approach to criminal justice. If some members of the public ‘fear’ others because of their skin colour, the fact they look different, wear different clothes, are visibly poor or are young, it is not incumbent upon government to enact laws or enforcement strategies that target such people. This is bad policy and practice that infringes on the rights of marginalized people, and the most vulnerable members of our society.
How You Can Help
With your help we can get this Act repealed. Michael Bryant, former attorney-general of Ontario and Toronto-area MPP, also agrees that this law should have been abolished. Together with support from all areas of the province we can make this Act history.
Join the Coalition for the Repeal of Ontario’s Safe Streets Act!
The Coalition for the Repeal of Ontario’s Safe Streets Act (CROSSA) is dedicated to the repeal of the Act.
We are guided by the following core beliefs and principles:
- People who experience homelessness should be treated with dignity, respect and fairness before the law.
- Laws and practices that criminalize people for being homeless are inhumane, unjust and counterproductive in our efforts to prevent, reduce and end homelessness.
- Such laws and practices – including the Ontario Safe Streets Act - should be repealed and efforts should be made to ameliorate the negative consequences these laws and practices have on individuals who are subjected to them.
Fill out your information using this form to join the coalition.
Share on Social Media
Visit the Coalition’s webpage for our prepared tweets or create your own. Either way, please help spread the word!
Send a letter to your MPP
December 14th marks 15 years of the Safe Streets Act criminalizing poverty and compromising the safety and well-being of people who are homeless. It’s time to repeal this bill!
Report cards are tools that communities use to measure and analyze their progress in ending homelessness. Report Cards usually build on the 10 Year Plans to End Homelessness by looking at what a community said they were going to do, gathering statistics to determine what has been done, comparing desired goals to actual outcomes and then analyzing and reporting on this progress.
Report cards are a method of accountability for the public, service providers and funders. They help ensure that there is a continual checking in process and a comparison to the vision. When a community is failing to make progress in one area of their plan they can use the information from the Report Card to determine how to change and prioritize that area of focus.
We recently released a 2014 report card on The State of Homelessness in Canada. The report delves into the crisis in housing and sets the course for ending homelessness in Canada.
To find a report card for a specific community in Canada, please see our Community Profiles section.
Content on this site is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial No Derivatives License
The analysis and interpretations contained in the blog posts are those of the individual contributors and do not necessarily represent the views of the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness.