The range of legal and justice issues that people experiencing homelessness face are varied and complex. This includes not only involvement with the justice system because of illegal activities, and the experience of criminal victimization, it also involves dealing with unpaid fines, accessing services, supports and benefits to which people are entitled but not able to access, and navigating legal processes such as eviction. Additionally, many people experience exploitation and challenges from employers, landlords and the police, as well as problems relating to family law, and in some cases, immigration. Many people experiencing homelessness are not aware of their rights, nor of the processes required to protect their rights.
A key feature of the Canadian response to homelessness – yet one that does not get sufficiently discussed – is the use of policing and the justice system to address homelessness. This is made evident through the criminalization of homelessness, whereby many jurisdictions in Canada have adopted measures intended to restrict the rights of people experiencing homelessness to occupy and inhabit public spaces such as street corners and parks, and which prohibit behaviours such as sleeping in public, or earning money through panhandling. Research demonstrates how such practices further marginalize homeless populations by pushing them into illegal and dangerous survival activities, saddling them with debt and alienating them from police and the criminal justice system.
There is also a growing body of Canadian research that focuses on the bidirectional relationship between homelessness and prison. That is, people who are homeless are over-represented in the prison population, and at the same time, ex-prisoners are at increased risk of becoming homeless, due to the absence of adequate and effective discharge planning and transitional supports.