The criminalization of homeless people - Interview with Bill O'Grady

Bill O’Grady teaches in the Criminal Justice and Public Policy Program at the University of Guelph.

His research interests focus on street-involved youth, crime and social exclusion.

Where are you from and where did you study?

I am from Ottawa originally and I did my BA and MA at Carleton University. I was a pre-doctorate fellow at the Memorial University in St. John’s NF and then I did my PhD in Sociology at the University of Toronto.

What area of homelessness research are you involved in?

I have been involved in several different areas. I was involved in a project about ten years ago that looked at the money-making practices of homeless youth in Toronto with Stephen Gaetz, who I have been collaborating with for the last 10 years or so. Since then we have been looking at how homelessness seems to be increasingly criminalized in a lot of different jurisdictions across the country. We are now working on a project with a group called Justice for Children and Youth and we are looking at the ticketing practices that are developing in the city with regard to homeless people in general, but our focus is mainly on homeless youth.

What in your opinion makes this research area important in addressing homelessness?

One of the main reasons it is important is because there is not a lot of information known about this [issue] in Canada. A lot of people have been suggesting that ticketing is becoming more prevalent and there is some evidence to suggest that it is. We are looking into more detail at who is getting tickets and for what types of offences and I don’t think that information is known about in Canada. I think both policy makers and the public would benefit if they were to understand in more detail of what is going on in the streets in terms of ticketing and charging of homeless people.

Based on your research and/or practice (i.e., work with people who are homeless), what in your opinion is (are) the key issue(s) that need(s) to be addressed?

Some of the key issues that need to be addressed would be how homelessness has changed over the last few years, how there are more people who seem to be in that predicament -- that was not in the case in the past. I think it is also important to know that the homeless population is not homogeneous, it’s very fragmented and there are different groups who are homeless and I think understanding that is something that is important. A lot of people in today’s society are falling through the cracks and are ending up homeless and that is what we should be thinking about.

What are the policy implications of this/these issue(s)? What do you see as the key policy priority in effectively addressing the problem of homelessness in Canada?

I think there’s got to be change on several fronts; there has to be more public awareness and public understanding of the issue. I also think there needs to be a change implemented. There needs to be more political will to do something long-term in terms of dealing with the problem. It seems to be a patchwork emergency response at the present and has been that way for several years now and I think we need to have more of a long-term determined strategy to deal with the problem as opposed to more of a patchwork, band-aid kind of exercise which has been the case for several years now.

Who needs to be involved in implementing your suggested policy/practice changes?

I think is should be multi-levelled in terms of governments. It should be dealt with at the municipal, provincial and federal levels and there doesn’t seem to be much coordination between those three levels of the government at the present time in dealing with the problem. I think there needs to be a national strategy to combat the problem and right now there doesn’t seem to be any strong initiatives at the national level to try to coordinate the provinces and get the municipalities involved in dealing with the problem of homelessness.

What is next in terms of your homelessness research?

It’s going to be taking an interesting direction which hasn’t been finalized yet, but I think my next project will be working with homeless people and their pets. I’m working at the University of Guelph with a veterinarian who is interested in research on homelessness and pets and this is one of the areas that is interesting because research so far has been finding that homeless people who do have pets find them to be a great help and a great support but there’s not much support for their animals. It’s hard to get their animals help, to get them vaccinated, spayed and neutered and we are looking at the relationship between well-being and ownership of pets. I think that is where I will be going next.

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