This week’s infographic is from a Mother Jones article that looked at the success that the Housing First philosophy has been having in Utah. Housing First is an example of an alternative to status quo approaches to homelessness, combining immediate access to permanent housing with wrap-around supports. The presence of built-in supports, including health care and counseling services, as well as employment and education supports, are essential for the Housing First approach. There are several causes of homelessness and in order to become solutions, it makes sense that approaches towards solving homelessness also need to be multifaceted.
Recent years have seen the increased criminalization of homelessness in the United States. The infographic states that 37 homeless people living in Osceola County, Florida, were arrested over 1,000 times over a ten year span, spending a cumulative 61,896 days in jail. It is estimated that the costs associated with arresting these individuals, charging them, and providing them with care in jail was well over six million dollars. Compared to the cost of providing support services to individuals living in homelessness, arresting and putting them into jail is prohibitively expensive.
However, we need not look all the way to the US for examples of laws that target individuals living in homelessness and waste financial resources. In 2000, the Ontario Safe Streets Act (SSA) came into effect. While the act was meant to address aggressive forms of solicitation, the way the law has been applied in real life is considerably different. A review of SSA tickets handed out by Toronto Police indicates that four out of five tickets were handed out for non-aggressive acts. This places increasing financial stress on individuals who, as it stands, have difficulty affording basic needs. Involvement with the criminal law system effectively acts as a barrier for many individuals seeking access to supports and services that can help them move out of homelessness. This includes educational supports, training opportunities for employment, housing subsidies, and food assistance. Fifteen years in, it's clear that the Act is an unproductive and discriminatory means of dealing with the province's growing homelessness problem.
The SSA provides a great example of how ineffective laws targeting homeless people are, compared to policies addressing affordable housing and other measures that actually address homelessness head-on. Criminality is not a synonym for the word homeless; we need to be doing a better job of supporting and enacting research-informed practices and policies. Strategies that look to address homelessness need to have a long-term focus and be informed by the experiences of people living in homelessness, rather than myths about homelessness. Spreading awareness has a vital role to play in informing the general public about real solutions to homelessness.
The SSA is a misinformed, inefficient, discriminatory piece of legislation that contributes to the criminalization of homelessness. It has no place in a province that possesses a social conscience and an interest in promoting the well-being of all of its citizens. I invite you to join the coalition to repeal the SSA. Criminalizing homelessness targets individuals living in homelessness, rather than homelessness itself.