As a student in the Faculty of Law at McGill during the summer of 2009, I was fortunate enough to do a 200-hour legal information placement with Dans la rue (DLR). Dans la rue was started in 1988 by Father Emmett Johns, who held a strong conviction that young people in unfortunate life circumstances were deserving of help, respect and compassion. With the support of countless others who have shared his philosophy and philanthropy, Dans la rue has become Canada’s second largest provider of services to street and at-risk youth.
Legal information forms only a small segment of the services offered at DLR, and my role in providing legal information to their clientele was not limited to looking up legal facts. The hands-on experience of working with these youth and learning their life stories changed the way I now perceive homelessness and the people who are affected by poverty in Canada, and in Montréal in particular. Despite the plethora of issues I encountered during my time at DLR, the reoccurring theme that emerged from almost all of my interactions with these young people is how the current legal system is overburdening the homeless poor and is placing already vulnerable members of our society into further turmoil.
While there are many examples of how the system works to keep the disadvantaged oppressed, the most frequent example I found during my placement was the ticketing of street youth for statutory and by-law offences, such as panhandling, jaywalking, squeegeeing, sleeping in a park, or creating public disturbances. As the legal information intern, I would spend a lot of my time verifying outstanding fines and contestations, annulling writ of seizures and working with DLR, the City of Montréal and the YM-YWCA’s Compensatory Work Program to create payment work plans. Navigating the bureaucratic framework to find the appropriate legal information was easy enough, but I found that simply dealing with the monetary amounts owed to the City of Montréal did nothing to explain why street youth were consistently receiving tickets for violating Montréal by-laws, nor did it address the repercussions of those tickets.
Although there are countless reasons why young people might end up homeless, more often than not they have left situations of abuse or neglect with very limited resources, only to find themselves confronting substance abuse, depression, mental disturbances and basic survival issues on the street. But, as I soon discovered, as well as facing social marginalization and prejudice, and equipped with poor life and advocacy skills, their difficulty is compounded by the fact that they are often targeted and ticketed by law enforcement officials precisely for being poor and problematic. I found that it is not uncommon for homeless young people to have $7,000 to $20,000 worth of tickets.
In this article, I argue that Montréal’s current statutory laws and general attitude of law enforcement towards street youth create what I refer to as the “criminalization of poverty.” This targeting of homeless youth, which victimizes and marginalizes an already disadvantaged segment of the population, places financial burdens upon them that negatively impacts life opportunities, including credit, work and educational options, and adds unnecessary stress to an already stressful situation. It is a given that it is the function of the law to regulate society, but I would also suggest that the legal system has a responsibility to protect those who are vulnerable in our society. In this case, it seems that the laws and their methods of enforcement exist to serve the interests of the financial elite and not the general public good. Both the law and societal attitudes need to be changed in order to more adequately address the causes and solutions to homeless youth ticketing. These homeless youth need more compassionate and alternative social, financial and compensational options.
In addressing these issues, I look at the problem of homelessness in Montréal, and in Canada generally. I identify the influences that have determined the policies which have shaped Montréal’s by-laws and attitudes towards homeless youth, including the zero-tolerance approach adopted by the City. I contrast this approach with Canada’s and Québec’s stated Rights and Freedoms; demonstrate how youth are targeted and discriminated against through the current laws and the methods of enforcement; and explore how the Courts deal with issues of fines and imprisonment. I conclude by critiquing the current system and suggesting both social and legal alternatives, drawing on examples from both B.C. and Ontario.