In recent years, there has been a growing trend to criminalize homelessness in both Canada and the United States. The below infographic, created by Al-Jazeera news, looks at some facts and figures related to the criminalization of homelessness in the United States.
Here in Canada, the Ontario Safe Streets Act (SSA), passed in 2000, is a striking example of a law that directly targets homeless people. 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. The Coalition for the Repeal of Ontario's Safe Streets Act has been formed to address this injustice and get the Government of Ontario to repeal this bill. The result of this legislation are tickets which often cannot, or will not be paid off, potentially leading to incarceration. The SSA is far from the only way that homeless people find themselves in jail, and when looking at the costs associated with jailing the homeless, it becomes clear that it is far from economical.
Compared to the cost of running shelter beds, arresting homeless people and putting them into jail is prohibitively expensive. Research conducted by the Wellesley Institute found that, in Canada, the average monthly cost of housing people who are homeless is $1,932 for a shelter bed. Compared to a cost of $4,333 for a bed in a provincial jail, it is clear which housing option is more economical. The infographic points to similar conclusions on the cost to house vs. jail in the US. Simply put, it is far more cost-effective to invest in housing supports for individuals living in homelessness than it is to treat them like criminals.
Public fears of homeless people should not justify the creation of laws such as the SSA, and in turn support the criminalization of homelessness. These fears also operate on a higher level, as policies in favour of criminalization are not informed by the lived experiences of people who have actually experienced homelessness. Awareness has a vital role to play in informing the general public about sustainable, long-term, solutions to homelessness.