The criminalization and prosecution of homeless people in Quebec: a socio-legal analysis of the phenomenon

This report stems from research on the criminalization of homeless in Canada that documents the phenomenon in seven cities (Vancouver, Winnipeg, Toronto, Ottawa, Montreal, Quebec, and Halifax). Our goal was to document the practices of criminalization in these different cities and to understand the socio-legal discourse of this phenomenon. The criminalization of homelessness is a result of the adoption of municipal policies to combat ‘uncivil’ behavior in the 1990s. These policies and practices are based on the American ‘broken windows’ theory (Wilson and Kelling, 1982). According to this theory, the lack of response to small social and criminal offenses and the first signs of unrest in an area (e.g. a broken window) can be an invitation to crime by signaling to potential offenders that the community does not care to maintain order in public spaces and that crime will be tolerated or accepted. In addition, the growing disorder causes public fear, ‘law abiding’ citizens who no longer feel safe in their neighborhood flee, informal safety measures are relaxed and thus begins a spiral of urban decay and crime. The main proponents of this theory associate homeless people with signs of disorder and insist that police respond quickly to remove and prevent further incivilities and other more serious crime. Despite its popularity, this theory is not based on any empirical evidence, and is the subject of much criticism in the scientific literature (Sylvestre, 2010, Harcourt, 2006; Wacquant, 2005; Bellot and Morselli, 2002). In addition to the significant consequences it entails for some individuals and groups of people (especially the homeless), the authors have not demonstrated a correlation between an increase in petty crime and an increase in more serious crimes. On the contrary, as demonstrated in Quebec and other North American cities, increasing the number of arrests and citations issued for minor offenses has resulted in the criminalization of persons with no previous criminal history. In the medium term, the application of this theory has generated resentment among some groups of individuals who are particularly affected by these practices and who are subject to increased surveillance, including homeless people, but also members of racial minorities who are subject to police harassment (Bernard and McCall, 2009). In addition, the application of this theory has been accompanied in most North American cities with tendencies by the police to accentuate the relationships and safety of its citizens. Thus, this new framework that surrounds police function, where enforcement is based on quality of life and security of citizens rather than on crime control, has strengthened the implementation of police strategy, particularly in the context of zero tolerance with the objective of controlling and putting away people considered to be undesirable (Beauchesne, 2010, Harcourt, 2001). However, few studies document how this implementation combats anti-social behavior. Our research, which presents new data from 7 different cities, contributes to a better understanding of the criminalization of homelessness by examining the contours, extent and effects of the latter. As part of this report, we examine the issue of homelessness in Quebec as well as in the legal framework of the study. Subsequently, we discuss the double methodological strategy used in this research. Finally, we present on the one hand, perceptions on the criminalization and prosecution of the homeless and on the other hand, its practice.

Publication Date: