Criminalizing Canada’s Poor: Will the ‘real’ criminals please stand up?
December 13, 2005
He taunted her as she walked back and forth on the sidewalk in front of the officer’s Café. “How ugly you are!” he shot at her, “You have lost your teeth. Are you trying to hide?”
To summarize this passage from Les Miserables’, Inspector Javert arrests Fantine, after she lashes out at the ‘Jim dandy’ and scratches him. Arbitrarily and on the spot, Javert the policeman sentences her to six months in jail. Most know the story. She is a poor woman, moral, but because of circumstance (She loses her job) and is slowly forced into more and more desperation until she sells her hair to a barber, then ends up on the street trying to make enough to feed her child Cosette.
A portrait of injustice – but is it a good example of contemporary society? Some would say yes. Hypocrisy, double standards and corruption – We have it now, as then, and perhaps even more now.
There are more homeless in Canada per capita than in the U.S. Canada has one of the highest per capita rates of homelessness of any developed nation in the world. We have about 200,000 homeless. The U.S., with a population nine times the size of us has 750,000.
While welfare rates have been cut in several provinces in recent years, and housing is an issue in almost every province; there has also been a rise in laws directly targeting the less fortunate.
In Toronto, Canada’s largest city there have been activities resembling a war with activist groups and coalitions of groups demonstrating against police “sweeps” similar to those carried out in large U.S. cities. “The system has cut welfare rates to the poor in Ontario, there are not enough shelters, and now to top it off they are implementing a new law making it illegal to sleep in public areas. It is obscene, it’s immoral.” Said John Clarke of Ontario Coalition Against Poverty in Toronto. “Bill 8 targeted squeegee kids and others, people who were not committing a crime. Other provinces are now copying our provincial by-law.”
“This week, Toronto City Council voted into place legislation that will authorize the clearing of homeless people from City Hall Square and other city owned squares.” Clarke said, “Municipal bylaw officers and cops are already using city rules to clear public parks and other spaces where people try to survive. This latest move complements the Provincial Safe Streets Act that has been used to persecute those who panhandle and squeegee. Urban space is being redeveloped so as to put the emphasis on upscale commercial and residential property. The poor and homeless face a brutal wave of social cleansing and the kind of legislation I have just alluded to is the legal face of this vile attack. Defying and defeating this inhuman assault on those driven into poverty will be a hard fought battle we can’t afford to lose.”
In BC, the Safe Streets Act was just implemented late in 2004. The fines ranging from $86 to $115, to be issued by police as tickets similar to traffic offences, are the finishing touches of the Liberal government’s Safe Streets Act and amended Trespass Act. It is similar to Bill 8 in Ontario, which was implemented four years ago. But Bill Burrill, president of Together Against Poverty in Victoria BC says their new law is more aimed at panhandlers in BC. “The politicians claimed they were targeting inappropriate behaviour or aggressive panhandlers,” Burrill said, ” I don’t believe that — the criminal code clearly covers all acts inappropriate in public. They don’t need this Safe Streets Act at all -It is specifically targeting panhandlers. It has been brought into place to “beautify” the streets for rich tourists.” The law is so new it hasn’t been challenged yet. There is a challenge to bill 8 in Ontario however.
Other cities were watching closely as National Anti Poverty Association challenged Winnipeg’s draconian anti-panhandling by-law. It dragged on for five years and was finally settled out of court with Winnipeg city hall finally giving in. The Winnipeg law restricted where and when panhandlers could work. Winnipeg had implemented it in 1995 and interestingly, their own lawyers had advised against the law agreeing with activists that the criminal code was sufficient to deal with panhandlers. The police even advised against the law. City council did what Toronto’s city council did. They ‘vetoed’ the findings and advice of those who warned against it and voted for the by-law against the advice of the ‘experts’ and did what the business community demanded. Winnipeg also implemented the very first anti-squeegee kid by-law in 1998. Again, against the advise of a 50 member task force made up of people from various social agencies and police. Almost unanimously, the number one recommendation was to licence the squeegeers and allow then to continue. There has been no challenge to the squeegee law, however. Winnipeg’s panhandler by-law was repealed without going to trial and replaced with one focusing only on aggressive behaviour while panhandling. So NAPO won in principle. Amazingly, Winnipeg city council is again proposing a new anti-panhandler by-law.
“We need to find a better way to deal with poverty and desperation,” said Dennis Howlett, Executive director of NAPO, (National Anti Poverty Organization) in Ottawa. ” The reason these laws are being passed is because of pressure from small businesses in municipalities.”
Howlett said that the costs of trails of panhandlers costs taxpayers a great deal of money when you add to it all the cost of defending unjust laws in Canada — money that could be spent on housing for the homeless.
Echoing his statements are activists across the nation who are enjoying tremendous success in defending panhandlers and squeegee kids in court. The Ticket Defence Committee in Ottawa has defended over two hundred people fined under the Safe Streets Act. Howlett said the activists and lawyers have been ‘tremendously successful’ in having charges thrown out. The defence is simple — The fine would pose an undue hardship on someone who has no money.
In Toronto, lawyers and activists have tackled it another way: arguing that the law is against the Charter Rights of the panhandlers and squeegee kids. The Act may also be unlawful since only the federal government can introduce laws regarding criminal matters. BC has gone against the spirit of that argument apparently and their anti-panhandling law was upheld after a challenge by NAPO. There has been no appeal yet from NAPO on the decision and a challenge to the new Safe Streets Act is a higher priority. In the United States advocates have been very successful defending the poor citing cruel and unusual punishment as outlined in the American Constitution. Several American cities have actually had to repeal their anti-panhandling by-laws and laws targeting the poor on the street.
Along with many judges across Canada who have a conscience — Judge Edwin Zimmerman, a judge in Winnipeg, where the first squeegee kid law was enacted, not only threw one of Canada’s first anti-squeegee charges a few years ago, but added, ” I think you’re doing a fine job — you’re dismissed!’
Some of the Canadian cities with laws concerning panhandling are: Ottawa; Quebec City; Toronto, Winnipeg; Calgary and Vancouver. Quebec City, Montreal, Winnipeg, the province of Ontario, and the province of BC have laws targeting squeegee kids.
Is there a need for new laws targeting the poor? When questioning the public about it many will say, ‘yes, because of the crime on the street’. But they are not aware that neither panhandlers nor squeegee kids are likely to harm them in any way. In fact, statistics show the opposite– that the homeless and poor on the street are often victims of violence from the general public!
Crime on the streets
I have spent many hours observing the behaviour of people on the street. People would often say something rude to the squeegee kids — the same with panhandlers. But not the reverse. I’ve seen worse. One day at Portage and Broadway in Winnipeg a young girl and her boyfriend were squeegeeing. A group of kids in an SUV were at the stoplight. As they pulled away one of them threw and ashtray and hit the girl squarely on the temple. Blood poured from her head. I could hear the people in the SUV wailing with laughter as the cowards fled the scene — the girl required 40 stitches. When I told the police they were totally uninterested.
I was on Osborne Street in Winnipeg another day. I witnessed an employee of a tattoo parlour come out of his store and punch a Native male in the face several times until the poor man fell to the ground. At least fifteen people sat sipping their expensive drinks in the sidewalk section of an upscale restaurant. When I asked no one was willing to testify or get involved. Yet another incident in friendly Manitoba: I was not there but heard about it from several youths on the street. A group of males jumped out of a van and beat two squeegee kids severely with golf clubs. When others ran a few short blocks and told police the police said, ‘ The squeegee kids shouldn’t have been on the street it’s their own fault.’ The police refused to search for the van even though they were given the licence number. Yet the chambers of commerce nation wide are hounding the civic politicians to ‘protect’ the public from panhandlers and squeegee kids.
I dressed in shabby clothes one day and tried to pan on Portage Avenue in Winnipeg. I have never seen such rude behaviour in my life. I think most people would suffer extreme trauma if they tried to panhandle. I don’t think most people enjoy it actually; they simple do it because they are extremely poor and desperate.
Whereas it is a given that there is crime on the street, the focus of public attention is not being directed by the system or the mainstream media to the real culprits. Meanwhile contemporary law and an attitude leaning in recent years towards less sympathy for the less fortunate has made it a hard go for some people who are merely trying to subsidise a very low fixed income by begging or squeegeeing.
In Barbara Murphy’s book The Ugly Canadian, the decline and fall of a caring society, she states,’ we take pride in our toughness now, not our generous social policies. We warn the poor and sick to keep their heads up; they’ve had their innings. The years of compassion are over (the 40s to the 80s) Today we’re playing hardball…concern about the deficit turned to anger and the public looked for someone to blame. Two items everyone could understand stood out: The deficit and social programs. Even though very little of the deficit could be blamed on social programs’.
Why the trend to Legislation?
Laws against the poor are not new. Vagrancy and panhandling by-laws have been around for over a hundred years – or since the beginning of your nation. The resurgence is mainly because of overly eager civic politicians wanting to placate the desires, moral or otherwise, of the business community.
In 1982 political scientist James Wilson and criminologist George Kelling co-authored an article in Atlantic Monthly titled “Broken Windows”. They claimed that the best way to fight crime was to target the disorder that precedes it, such as: panhandling, garbage, derelict buildings, and graffiti.
New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani adopted the Broken Windows Theory and implemented a community-policing strategy focused on order maintenance… graffiti washed nightly from subway cars, $1.25 subway turnstile-jumpers arrested, trash picked up. Minor, seemingly insignificant quality-of-life crimes were found to be the tipping point for violent crime. When New York “windows” were repaired, crime dropped – or so the bureaucrats claim. Canadian cities took note and soon Toronto initiated Bill 8.
Bill 8 is province wide in scope and targets squeegee kids as well as other actions deemed anti social behaviour. Activist and director of Ontario Coalition Against Poverty, John Clarke is a big opponent of it and says a group of activists are challenging it. Here is an excerpt from Bill 8:
‘…This is one simple way that citizens measure their quality of life. They want to go shopping or take their children to a park or just go out for a stroll after seeing a show without hassle. They don’t want to worry about encountering behaviour that poses a safety hazard, and yet this is exactly what is happening in Ontario.
Activities such as aggressive solicitation, squeegeeing and the disposal of dangerous objects in parks have compromised the safe use of public places.’
But squeegee kids and panhandlers are extremely unlikely to rob, assault, and rape anyone. It is true, however, that downtown areas of cities are where the highest rates of crime can be found. Interestingly, in Winnipeg where the first anti-squeegee kid by-law was implemented in 1998, drug dealing, which is truly a crime, was rife in Winnipeg. But the Business Improvement Zone (BIZ) politicians, and the police launched no such campaign as was launched against squeegee kids. Why? Squeegee kids and panhandlers were singled out – the poor people on the streets.
Today, you can walk down Osborne Street and immediately see the dealers, pimps, and gang members at the corner of River and Osborne St, standing around looking cool. If one were to check their criminal records it would stretch 10 blocks long. They stand around boldly, as if proud of themselves. Seven years have passed since the squeegee kid by-law and ‘sweep’ of the scruffy looking squeegee kids. ‘Real’ crime in the village is still the same — or even higher. Is it because drugs and other ‘real’ crimes are good for business–but poor/scruffy people are not?
It’s about aesthetics
“It’s a comfort issue”, said Arlne Peltz, Lawyer for NAPO; the group that successfully challenged Winnipeg’s panhandler law five years ago, ” That’s what we’ll show in court, Peltz had said.
The NAPO statement of claim against the Winnipeg panhandler by-law had argued that the true purpose of the panhandler by-law was to distance and separate panhandlers from the rest of the population – to avoid discomfort of proximity to indigents on the street. That’s the story you will get from many an activist — it’s about comfort and aesthetics. Many cities even called their downtown ‘revitalization’ projects ‘beautification’ projects.
Desperate, but not criminals
Every generation thinks the present generation of kids worse than the previous. That’s according to a study done by two Guelph researchers in Ontario -O’Grady and Sprott. They also stated that most people have already made up their minds about homeless youth but they would like to know if the “experts” agree. I’m not a big fan of “experts” especially when it comes to social issues. I have seen their work before and have disagreed many a time but O’Grady and Sprott seem to have made some good points.
Sprott stated that fear is fueling the passage of laws designed to keep schools and society safe from violence, policies that Sprott says are often based more on anxiety and assumptions than reality. Recent examples include the Ontario provincial Safe Streets Act that allows police to ticket people for squeegeeing and outlaws panhandling in spots where the right-of-way is impeded (such as near bank machines and transit stops).
Legislation that dictates where and when street youth can panhandle does not even begin to address the real problems kids face O’grady and Sprott’s study showed that hysteria and paranoia have much to do with people’s perceptions of youth today, especially homeless youth. For example, he believes that people’s consternation with squeegee kids does not have a lot to do with the youths themselves.
His study on squeegee kids included interviews with more than 50 Toronto teens who were involved in squeegee cleaning and 50 who did not clean car windows for money.
The findings revealed that squeegee kids were less likely to sell drugs, commit crimes and engage in violent behaviour than other less-visible street youth were. Squeegee kids also had a better mental outlook… Ironically whole new laws are being implemented to criminalize these people and prevent them from working. The first law was implemented in friendly Manitoba. There are several new laws targeting poor youth in Canada. These laws were brought into being with relative ease with the business communities attending all the city hall meetings across our nation to be careful and make sure these “criminals”‘ are prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. In the space of a few short months the anti-squeegee kid by-law in Winnipeg was implemented.
Interestingly, youth advocates across Canada have been lobbying for decades literally for the implementation of new laws– to raise the age of consent so that sexual predators in our communities would not victimize young people. The age of consent in Canada is 14 years old. Why have they not been successful? The politicians seem so eager to please the businesspersons across our nation – the poor and scruffy people – people who are not aesthetically pleasing to consumers are quickly confronted with conviction, yet the most vulnerable in our great country are ignored, as are their advocates!
The following is an excerpt from the North American Street Newspaper Association website: ‘A report put out earlier this year by the Washington-based National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty (NLCHP) reviewed the punitive policies in 50 U.S. cities. It found that in 49 cities where the information was available, 86 per cent have laws that restrict begging. During the last two years, 12 per cent of those cities have enacted new laws restricting begging, and 73 per cent have laws restricting sleeping and/or camping outdoors.
In many ways (videotaping or monitoring) serves more as a deterrent,” says Michael Stoops, project director of the Washington-based National Coalition for the Homeless. “No private security guard or police officer’s going to make themselves look foolish in front of a camera. But it’s hard to get patrols out there on a regular basis. So we find it’s best to educate homeless people about what their rights are and to give them the name and address of the local civil liberties attorney.”
“We found litigation to be the best way to stop a law from being passed or enforced,” says Stoops. ‘
In Toronto, police reform lawyers like Mark Wainberg are only beginning to look at the possibility of launching a class-action suit against the police. But in U.S. cities, lawsuits on behalf of the homeless are common
Laws against poor encourage violence. According to several studies in the United States it is the homeless and desperate youth who have suffered assaults and been victims of crime – perpetrated by non-homeless individuals in the general public. When poor people are assaulted on the street they almost never report it. But the media blows it up big when a poor person is provoked or attacks someone of the general public.
In The U.S. during the years (1999-2003) advocates and homeless shelter workers have seen an alarming rise in reports of homeless men, women, and even children killed, beaten, and harassed. Since 1999 National Coalition for the Homeless has been compiling records of abuse against the homeless in America. In 2003, nine homeless people died as a result of beatings by non-homeless individuals. Dozens were assaulted on the street. These numbers are probably far higher, however, because most homeless people do not report abuse. There has not been a similar study in Canada.
Groups like National Coalition for the Homeless in the States have been successful in challenging unjust laws and in spreading the word: “Instead of the compassionate responses that communities have used to save lives in the past two decades, the common response to homelessness is to criminalize the victims through laws and ordinances that make illegal life-sustaining activities that people experiencing homelessness are forced to do in public,” said Donald Whitehead, Executive Director of the National Coalition for the Homeless, who is himself formerly homeless.
As it becomes increasingly difficult to afford housing, this country is turning to jails instead of creating affordable housing. These individuals and families are arrested for committing such illegal acts as sitting or standing on sidewalks and napping in parks. Whitehead stated, “At the national level, we see a relationship between municipalities’ efforts to make homelessness a crime and the increases in hate crimes and violent acts directed at homeless people in those cities.”
A woman I spoke to on the street in Winnipeg made and interesting comment…
‘ Yes, there is a lot of crime on the street, she said ‘and there’s a group of unproductive people who are lazy and dishonest. There should be something done about it. But I am not talking about panhandlers or squeegee kids…’
Reprinted from Streetsheet, Canada
© Street News Service: www.street-papers.org