It's time to repeal the Safe Streets Act!
The Ontario Safe Streets Act (SSA) exists as one of the clearest and most obvious examples of the creation of new laws that contribute to the criminalization of homelessness. This provincial legislation, which came into effect in January 2000, in response to the growing visibility of homelessness in Toronto and other major cities in the 1990s, while never mentioning homelessness specifically, clearly targets homeless persons.
This December marks the 15th Year Anniversary of the SSA. The SSA has had a negative impact on the safety and wellbeing of people who are homeless or street-involved. Because homeless people have to do things in public spaces that housed individuals do not (e.g., sleeping, eating and drinking, making money), the SSA has disproportionately impacted homeless individuals, contributing to the criminalization of homelessness and poverty.
What is the Ontario Safe Streets Act?
The SSA (S.O. 1999, CH. 8) is designed to address panhandling, squeegeeing and other forms of solicitation undertaken in an “aggressive manner … a manner that is likely to cause a reasonable person to fear for their safety and security”. Unfortunately, the language of the act is rather vague, giving law enforcement officials broad discretion in its application. Moreover, suggesting enforcement is justified if it causes a person to be fearful can play to prejudices rather than real concerns. The law, while not explicitly mentioning people who are homeless, is clearly intended to target people of that status, and was framed based on similar legislation from the United States that had the intention of criminalizing homelessness, or the activities that people who experience homelessness engage in as a means of survival.
Why is this bad policy and practice?
Issuing tickets to homeless people is a counter-productive way of dealing with a poverty issue
People who are homeless do not choose to be homeless. The research evidence indicates that a lack of affordable housing, combined with the inadequacy of necessary supports for those dealing with health, mental health, disability, violence and addictions issues means that many people become homeless. Moreover, many are forced to inhabit public spaces to meet basic needs such as sleep and income generation. The way to deal with these social and economic issues is to ensure that people have access to safe and affordable housing, as well as necessary supports to maintain their housing. Using law enforcement to deal with poverty is bad policy and practice.
Homeless people cannot pay SSA fines
Homeless people panhandle for small change because they have no money. So why would we give people in this situation a fine? The SSA calls for fines of up to $500 for a first offence, and for imprisonment up to 6 months plus $1000 for any subsequent offence. People who are sentenced to more than 30 days in jail lose any social assistance they would normally receive for housing, and can be evicted. This way people who have housing are forced back onto the street.
A recent study identified that the number of SSA tickets issued in Toronto in 2009 was 13,023, while the total number over eleven years (2000-2010) was 67,388. The total value of the tickets in 2009 was minimally $781,380, and over eleven years more than four million dollars ($4,043,280). This is a large financial burden placed upon homeless people living in extreme poverty. Many individuals, over time, accumulate hundreds and even thousands of dollars in fines that they are unable to pay. Involvement in the Criminal Justice System makes it even more challenging for homeless individuals to engage in education, training and/or the labour market. Furthermore, convictions for panhandling count against your driving record so the Act makes it harder for homeless people to find jobs, keeping them on the street longer. And when jail is imposed for panhandling, people can lose the housing they do have and be forced back onto the street, actually increasing homelessness.
Panhandling and squeegeeing have been on the decline for a decade, yet the number of tickets issued in Toronto continues to rise
Two significant pieces of research, including one by the City of Toronto, show that incidences of panhandling and squeegeeing have been declining over the past decade. Yet the number of tickets issued continues to rise. This suggests that this ticketing has more to do with the visibility and status of people who experience homelessness, rather than their infractions.
The Safe Streets Act does not actually address aggressive solicitation
A review of SSA tickets issued by the Toronto Police Services between 2004-2010 shows that 20% of tickets issued were for “aggressive solicitation,” while the remaining 80% of tickets were for non-aggressive acts that have been criminalized under the SSA. This suggests that despite its stated purpose, the SSA is not actually being implemented to address aggressive panhandling and soliciting.
The Safe Streets Act is not cost-effectiveResearch suggests that implementing the SSA cost Toronto Police Services $936,019 between 2000-2010. The fines imposed for panhandling are almost never collected (only $8,086.56 in fines were paid over that same period), but taxpayers are still paying for the courtroom, the Justice of the Peace, the testifying police officer and the prosecutor to have the fines imposed.
Public fears of homeless people do not justify the use of law enforcement
In announcing the Safe Streets Act in 1999, the government of the day proclaimed: “Our government believes that all people in Ontario have the right to drive on the road, walk down the street or go to public places without being or feeling intimidated. They must be able to carry out their daily activities without fear. When they are not able to do so, it is time for government to act”. While at face value, this may seem to be a worthy sentiment, in reality it is a very flawed approach to criminal justice. If some members of the public ‘fear’ others because of their skin colour, the fact they look different, wear different clothes, are visibly poor or are young, it is not incumbent upon government to enact laws or enforcement strategies that target such people. This is bad policy and practice that infringes on the rights of marginalized people, and the most vulnerable members of our society.
How You Can Help
With your help we can get this Act repealed. Michael Bryant, former attorney-general of Ontario and Toronto-area MPP, also agrees that this law should have been abolished. Together with support from all areas of the province we can make this Act history.
Join the Coalition for the Repeal of Ontario’s Safe Streets Act!
The Coalition for the Repeal of Ontario’s Safe Streets Act (CROSSA) is dedicated to the repeal of the Act.
We are guided by the following core beliefs and principles:
- People who experience homelessness should be treated with dignity, respect and fairness before the law.
- Laws and practices that criminalize people for being homeless are inhumane, unjust and counterproductive in our efforts to prevent, reduce and end homelessness.
- Such laws and practices – including the Ontario Safe Streets Act - should be repealed and efforts should be made to ameliorate the negative consequences these laws and practices have on individuals who are subjected to them.
Fill out your information using this form to join the coalition.
Share on Social Media
Visit the Coalition’s webpage for our prepared tweets or create your own. Either way, please help spread the word!
Send a letter to your MPP
December 14th marks 15 years of the Safe Streets Act criminalizing poverty and compromising the safety and well-being of people who are homeless. It’s time to repeal this bill!
Stephen Gaetz is a Professor in the Faculty of Education and is the Director of the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness and the Homeless Hub. He is also President of Raising the Roof, a leading Canadian charity that focuses on long term solutions to homelessness.
Dr. Gaetz is committed to a research agenda that foregrounds social justice and attempts to make research on homelessness relevant to policy and program development. His research on homeless youth has focused on their economic strategies, health, education and legal and justice issues, and more recently, he has focused his attention on policy and in particular the Canadian Response to homelessness. He has recently edited two volumes on homelessness in Canada, including: Housing First in Canada – Supporting Communities to End Homelessness. (2013) and Youth homelessness in Canada: Implications for policy and practice (2013). In addition, he has published a book on community-based responses to youth problems in Ireland and written numerous reports and articles published in a wide range of peer reviewed journals. Dr. Gaetz was Associate Dean of Research and Professional Development in the Faculty of Education Prior to his time at York University, Dr. Gaetz worked in the Community Health Sector, both at Shout Clinic (a health clinic for street youth in Toronto) and Queen West Community Health Centre in Toronto.
Dr. Gaetz has played a leading international role in knowledge dissemination in the area of homelessness. York played host to 2005’s Canadian Conference on Homelessness – the first research conference of its kind in Canada. In addition, York University now hosts the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness and the Homeless Hub the first comprehensive and cross-disciplinary web-based clearinghouse of homelessness research in the world. The focus of this network is to work with researchers across Canada to mobilize research so that it has a greater impact on homelessness policy and planning. Through the CHRN Dr. Gaetz is publishing policy relevant research, including two recent reports on youth homelessness: A Safe and Decent Place to Live: Towards a Housing First Framework for Youth. (2014) and Coming of Age: Reimagining our Response to Youth Homelessness in Canada. (2014), as well as The Canadian Definition of Homelessness (2012), The Real Cost of Homelessness. Can we save money by doing the right thing? (2012), Can I See Your ID? The Policing of Homeless Youth in Toronto (2011), and Family Matters: Homeless youth and Eva’s Initiatives “Family Reconnect” Program. (2011).
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The analysis and interpretations contained in the blog posts are those of the individual contributors and do not necessarily represent the views of the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness.