Infographic: Punishing the Poorest

York University; Canadian Observatory on Homelessness/Homeless Hub
August 19, 2015

The below infographic comes from a recent report published by the Coalition on Homelessness in San Francisco that focused on the criminalization of homelessness in the city.

Of 351 participants who experienced homelessness in SF in the past year, 70% of respondents were forced to move from a public space.

The infographic states that 70% of survey respondents, all of whom had experienced homelessness in San Francisco in the past year, had been forced at least once to move from a public space. Of the survey respondents, 91% who had been asked to move remained in a public space, but moved down the street, walked around, or went to a different neighbourhood. The other 9% moved indoors. (It is highly likely that even these 9% returned to a public space shortly after being asked to relocate.) Simply put, more often than not there is nowhere else to go for these individuals.

The infographic also states that referrals and services commonly provided by police officers reinforce punitive practices. Results from the survey show that only 11% of police interactions resulted in a referral to another service. Due to a lack of shelters, drop-in centers and affordable housing options, officers can offer little, “except a ticket and threat of arrest”. The absence of adequate supports for individuals living in homelessness may actually heighten existing tensions between people experiencing homelessness and law enforcement.

When San Francisco police displace homeless people from a public space, services are rarely offered.

It’s clear that the criminalization of homelessness in San Francisco is doing nothing to actually address the problem. Rather than solving homelessness itself, criminalization wrongly targets individuals who are living in homelessness.

Research shows that how we discuss police interactions with individuals experiencing homelessness, especially those with mental health issues, matters. A recent study, conducted using four Vancouver police department reports, found that such reports call for increased investment in police presence and linked people with mental health issues with violence and danger. Policies that criminalize and frame homeless people as grave threats to public’s wellbeing marginalize those who are homeless, and simultaneously erode whatever trust homeless people have with law enforcement authorities. These policies are often informed by myths about homeless people, rather than actual research and evidence. It’s no wonder that the Coalition on Homelessness in San Francisco calls for department-wide training for police officers to improve police interactions with the homeless. Recently, Emma published a great post on the Hub that outlines what else can be done to improve police interactions with homeless populations.

Unfortunately, recent years have seen increased criminalization of homelessness in the United States. San Francisco is only one of many cities in the USA to have these policies in place. However, we need not look far to find examples of the criminalization of homelessness here in Canada.

Looking at the Criminalization of Homelessness in Canada

The Ontario Safe Street Act (SSA), passed in 2000, provides us with a clear example of how individuals living in homelessness are being targeted here in Canada. While the act was intended to curb aggressive forms of solicitation, the reality has been considerably different. A review of tickets handed out by Toronto Police under the SSA indicates that up to 80% of the tickets were handed out for non-aggressive acts. These tickets can potentially lead to incarceration. We have to consider the impact such tickets can have on individuals living in homelessness who are facing tremendous challenges to begin with. Accessibility to education supports, housing subsidies, and food assistance can all be negatively impacted by involvement with the criminal justice system.

Fifteen years after the SSA has been passed, it’s clear that the Act is an inappropriate way to deal with the province’s problem with homelessness. The Coalition for the Repeal of Ontario’s Safe Streets Act was formed to address this injustice. We invite you to sign the petition to repeal the SSA.

Vineeth Sekharan is an undergraduate student in a psychology major at York University. His interest in the elimination of barriers to accessing vital services like housing and healthcare led him to work as a research student with The Homeless Hub. Vineeth’s other research interests include epidemiology, theories of power and persuasion, and literacy education. In his spare time, he likes to read a lot, write here and there, and then read some more.

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