Canadian Observatory on Homelessness
August 26, 2013

Last week at the Homeless Hub:

Happily, we’re still getting lots of hits on two of our “Ask the Hub” questions. The mental health and homelessness infographic that Isaac Coplan, an FES grad student, created for us is still circulating regularly, as is Tanya's answer to a question on giving money to panhandlers. We’d love to answer your questions as well. Please email us at if you’d like your question to be given to one of our team.

Homelessness and Mental Health
Media Folder: 

Our colleagues at Europe’s FEANSTA (European Federation of National Organisations working with the Homeless) just released the summer edition of their “Homeless in Europe” magazine focused on mental health and homelessness. From the description:

“Much has been written on the interrelatedness of mental health and homelessness, some arguing that mental health problems lead to homelessness, while others claiming that homelessness is a stress factor which provokes mental ill health. Although the direction of causality is not straightforward, the link clearly shows how mental health cannot be treated in isolation and how its wider social context, e.g. social status, poverty or social relations, has to be considered.”

The 25 Myths of Homelessness – previously published by Christine Schanes in Huffington Post – are a big hit. Our communications staff are promoting different myths daily. These myths include: “Homeless People Just Rest All Day”, “The Police Will Solve It” and “They Make Millions”.

Here at the Homeless Hub we love our social media almost as much as we love research. It’s always exciting when the two combine. We were happy to see the release of the paper “Blurring the Boundaries? New Social Media, New Social Research: Developing a network to explore the issues faced by researchers negotiating the new research landscape of online social media platforms.” The paper stems from a series of activities including workshops and various social media activities that explored whether or not social science researchers should use social media and what it means for them to do so.

Lastly, we want to invite any interested York University students to a workshop we are putting together with ResearchImpact of Knowledge Mobilization Unit at York. The "Write for the Reader: Introduction to Clear Language" workshop will teach you how to improve your written communication and will allow you to produce two clear language research summaries for us on your topic of interest. You can find examples of these in our research summaries section of the site. Make sure to register by e-mailing us at as spaces are limited.

Introduction to clear language
Media Folder: 
Canadian Observatory on Homelessness/Homeless Hub; York University
August 23, 2013
Categories: Ask the Hub

After last week’s Ask the Hub question on panhandling we’ve had a lot of discussion on Twitter, Facebook and the blog about the issue. Our next question comes from Twitter follower @PurpleSaxifrage who tweeted the following:

How could a homeless person pay a fine?

The Ottawa Sun picture it refers to (below) is from the print edition; there are other pictures available online as well as the story.

Two homeless on the sidewalk holding a fine they have been issued

While the online and print text is a little different, the basic gist is the same. Police conducted a two hour panhandling blitz targeting panhandlers who moved away from the Lowertown area of Ottawa. They moved away because they were being targeted by the crime and disorder foot patrol which handed out 460 tickets in its first month.

In my work with people who are homeless the issue of ticketing comes up frequently. Sometimes, when I’ve had to ask for ID I’m given a ticket as proof of identity. Most people living on or frequenting the streets have a pocket full of tickets. They also have very few ideas on how to pay them. Jail instead of payment seems like a good alternative to some people who are homeless (at least they’ll get meals for a couple of nights and know where they will sleep). But a lack of discharge planning and the impact of spending time in jail just helps to re-create the cycle of homelessness.

“Put ‘em in jail” seems to be an answer that works for many Canadians as well. A Leger Marketing poll conducted in August 2011 found that “Almost half of Canadians — 48% — feel there needs to be more done to solve the panhandling problem, while 31% feel people who beg for change are simply victims of a tough society and economy.”

Putting people in jail is an acceptable option for aggressive panhandling according to the poll. But, tickets aren’t just for aggressive panhandling as an Ottawa Sun opinion piece suggested awhile ago. They are for erecting tents, sleeping in public, urinating in public, jaywalking, being drunk and disorderly and loitering (amongst many other charges). The tickets are being targeted at people whose home is on the streets.

We’re not talking about a small handful of tickets either, or a measly amount of money. Last year, John Bonnar wrote about Louis Quinn, a formerly homeless man who had died just after receiving housing. Louis died with a debt of $20,000-30,000 hanging over his head; in unpaid tickets.

In Montreal, a National Post article about ticketing shares the case of a 51-year old homeless man who had 374 infractions which added up to $88,0742.19. “There was never the slightest chance of him paying a single cent, and yet the city kept mindlessly charging him.”

In “Can I See Your ID? The Policing of Youth Homelessness in Toronto” we reported that Safe Streets Act (SSA) tickets in Toronto alone had risen from “from 710 tickets in 2000, to 3,646 in 2005, and again to 15,224 in 2010, an increase of 2,147%.”

The SSA permits tickets up to $500 for a first offence but the average is $60/ticket. Over the 11 year period from 2000-2010 Toronto police issued 67,388 tickets at an estimated 16.847 hours of police time and a police cost of nearly $1 million (that doesn’t include court time, processing time or follow-up for unpaid tickets.)

The value of those tickets (if paid) would be $4,043, 280. The actual amount collected by the city? $8,086.56. Nope, that’s not a printing error: 0.2% of the ticket value has been paid.

Homeless Hub’s director Steve Gaetz wrote a blog post in November 2011 on criminalization of homelessness when the above report and “La judiciarisation des personnes en situation d’itinérance à Québec : point de vue des acteurs socio-judiciaires et analyse du phénomène” were released. Very little has improved since then; in fact, it’s gotten worse.

Earlier this year, Vancouver city council was considering increasing street-activity fines by 400% including sleeping in parks, doorways etc. In some cases, these fines could have been as much as $10,000. The decision was deferred while a constitutional challenge by Pivot Legal Society is awaiting a decision. I’d be hard-pressed as a full-time, wage earner to pay a $10,000 fine. How do we expect someone who is panhandling for survival to afford it?

This issue, as with many topics we discuss, isn’t the one it appears to be on the surface. The issue is homelessness and a lack of safe, secure and affordable housing. Steve Gaetz said in an article on panhandlers a couple of years ago “If you want to deal with panhandling as a problem, you have to make homelessness not a problem. It’s a manifestation of something else.”

For further reading:

City of Saskatoon has a very impressive baseline study on street activity – focused on panhandling though incorporating other issues – that looks at how panhandling can impact a community.

Let’s end with a video opinion about ticketing panhandling. While I love this guy’s style and most of his point of view, I cringe at some of the terms he uses to describe homeless people and panhandlers. Understanding the impact of language may be a post for another day (it’s talked about briefly in this mythbuster). In the meantime, he has some good points and communicating in a way most people can relate to is a key technique for changing the public’s understanding of the issue.

Canadian Observatory on Homelessness
August 21, 2013

This week's infographic comes from NeoMan Studios, an infographic design agency. "13 Reasons Why Your Brain Craves Infographics" is an interactive infographic which uses HTML5, to create an illusion of depth as you scroll through the content, adding to a multi-faceted visual experience.

Why your brain craves infographicsThe reason why we like this infographic so much is that it reiterates why infographics are so valuable in today's fast-paced, information overload society. As it points out, infographics are more engaging and are faster and easier to process. They also come very handy when you are trying to share content using social media tools, which are very visually driven. Here, at the Homeless Hub, we try to present information in the most accessible way we can. When we release content we add either an executive summary or a research summary together with an infographic which can be easily understood and shared amongst a variety of individuals. We have seen that such tools are embraced by our audience and we recommend that other researchers use these tools to get greater audience engagement.

To get the full impact of this infographic you must visit their website. Not only is it fun to look at, you can even tweet individual quotes directly from the page.

Infographics counter information oveload beacuse they are more engaging


Canadian Observatory on Homelessness
August 19, 2013

The past week has been a busy one for researchers, here are a few things that we found interesting here at the Homeless Hub:

Tanya Gulliver tackled a good question, with a well thought out answer last Friday on our "Ask the Hub" edition. "I always hear mixed responses to whether you should give homeless people money on the street. Some say it only fuels addiction. What's the best way in your day to day life to help the homeless?" Click here to read the response.

For those of you who aren’t aware August 10th marked Prisoners' Justice Day. Ainsley Cripps from the John Howard Society contributed this insightful guest blog. Highlighting a report by the John Howard Society, Ainsley pointed out that there is a need for more services assisting those who have been released from custody to ensure that they have access to safe and secure housing. “Between ⅓ to ½ of prisoners leave custody with no fixed address.”

A group of researchers released a study from Vancouver involving 293 people who are marginally housed in the Downtown East Side. The study found that there were very high rates of serious illnesses: 18.6% tested positive for HIV and 70.3% for Hepatitis C. This study demonstrates a service gap. You can access the study from the American Journal of Psychiatry, or read more about it in the Vancouver Sun.

Last week’s infographic from the American Institute of Research focused on the connection of trauma and violence for women experiencing homelessness. This is an ongoing problem with street youth where high levels of young women experiencing homelessness reported being victims of crime. This problem has serious repercussions for those with lived experience as well as service delivery.

The Toronto Star featured Alex Abramovich in a story on Alex’s recently completed doctoral dissertation. The study is on the experience of sexual minority youth in the shelter system in Toronto. Alex found that homophobia, and physical abuse is still common within the shelter system. If you’re interested in more, take a look at the chapter by Alex in our free e-book Youth Homelessness in Canada: Implications for Policy and Practice (2013).

Canadian Observatory on Homelessness/Homeless Hub; York University
August 16, 2013
Categories: Ask the Hub

Dear Homeless Hub,
I always hear mixed responses to whether you should give homeless people money on the street. Some say it only fuels addiction. What's the best way in your day to day life to help the homeless?

Alex Flint
Toronto, ON

Dear Alex,

This is a question that I was asked a lot when I was teaching the “Homelessness in Canadian Society” course at Ryerson University. My answer was always the same “It’s your choice, but have the decency to look someone in the eye and acknowledge them.”

That sounds simple, but the fact is, many people who are panhandling are routinely ignored, sworn at, harassed, robbed and assaulted. Having someone look them in the eye and recognize them as a person can be very affirming.

Personally, I don’t give money frequently, but I do on occasion. Living in a big urban environment means that a walk downtown could result in several encounters with people who are panhandling. I also prefer not to pull my wallet out in the middle of the street  – not for fear of the panhandler, but rather of an opportunistic purse thief – so it will depend if I have change in my pocket.

What I tell my students, going back to the question of “should I give money?” is that it really is a choice that you need to make for yourself. However, if you choose to give someone money, what that money gets spent on is no longer in your control. When I give a server a tip at a restaurant I don’t get to dictate that they should only buy food or pay for housing with it. The money is theirs and the spending choice is theirs.

homeless sitting on the sidewalk

If you’re worried about the money going to alcohol or drugs there are a few options:

  1. Give the money to an organization working with people experiencing homelessness.
  2. Buy a street newspaper.
  3. Buy a small gift card – i.e. for a local coffee shop or fast food restaurant.
  4. Use the money to donate food to a food bank.

Buying food instead of giving money is something that a lot of people ask about and it is going to come down to choice for the panhandler again. I’m the world’s pickiest eater; I would have a hard time trusting that the food someone hands me on the street is safe, edible and something I will like. Most of us like to have the ability to choose what we want to eat and when we want to eat it. Giving a panhandler a coffee instead of cash may be your preference, but if it’s the fifth coffee they’ve been handed in 20 minutes, they may well refuse it.

Part of the Ryerson course includes an organized – and safely conducted – opportunity for students to experience panhandling themselves. (The money is donated to an agency working on the issue of homelessness or students can choose to give the money directly to someone who is panhandling.)

I asked some past students about their experience:

Shannon Kaloczi said that while it hasn’t changed the amount she gives people it has affected how she treats panhandlers.

Before [the course] I think I was naive as to how hard panhandling can be, and now I never pass by without at least a smile. When [the instructor] sent us out, that was the hardest part, being disregarded and looked at as if we were nothing, so now I try not to make others feel the same way.

Emerald Lacaille had a similar experience. She says:

I think the biggest difference since I took the course is that I treat people differently than I did before. I smile, say hello, and do what I can to help, when the opportunity arises, and if I feel safe. I see those experiencing homelessness as community members versus "the other". I treat them as I would anyone else I encounter on the street. I don't think one person can help everyone, but I think everyone can help at least one person.

Stephanie Teppo’s feelings are also similar.

I still give money or food as I have always had. I always give what I can and what I feel comfortable with. What has changed was I am more comfortable to engage and interact with the person. Everyone has a story. If they want to share their story with me, I am happy to listen.

Some background on panhandling:

A 2002 report “Income and Spending Patterns Among Panhandlers” in the Canadian Medical Association Journal shared results from interviews with 54 panhandlers in Toronto. They found that while all had been homeless at some point in their life only 65% were currently homeless. 24% had their own room or apartment but needed to panhandle to gain additional income.

It also found that “their single largest reported expense was food” and that “for the one-fourth of panhandlers who rent a room or apartment, however, any loss of income could easily lead to homelessness.”

A research report a few years ago from the Institute of Urban Studies at the University of Winnipeg titled "Does Panhandling Provide a Living?" focused on panhandlers in Winnipeg. It found that “Of those who estimated their daily panhandling earnings, 40% reported making between ten and thirty dollars per day, while 38% said they earned more than thirty dollars daily. Only 22% reported making more than fifty dollars per day.”

A very telling comment from that report stated, “When asked the question “What if panhandling just wasn’t an option?” 27% did not have any answer. They seemed to be at a complete loss. Another 17.5% said that they wouldn’t be able to do anything and/or they would go hungry. This suggests that for almost half of the interviewees, panhandling is their final option or last resort.”

Panhandling is also an area of intense criminalization of poverty and homelessness. In “The Expressive Liberty of Beggars: Why it matters to them, and to us”, a report from the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, the issue of panhandling being a sign of someone being at wit’s end is mentioned: “It is morally perplexing that in 21st century Canada it could be a punishable offence for one person to say to another, peacefully, in a public place, 'I’m in trouble and need help.' Yet that is the effect of City of Winnipeg Bylaw No. 128/2005.1. Other Canadian and American cities have enacted similar legislation, and a fast-growing body of jurisprudence in both Canada and America testifies to the fact that the criminalization of panhandling has become a kind of battleground. On this battleground, a clash occurs between competing values: social 'hygiene' vs. freedom of expression; middle class discomfort vs. un-derclass economic need; commercial interest of downtown business owners vs. beggars’ right to plead for subsistence.”

For further reading and information on panhandling check out the Hub’s topic : Panhandling, Busking and Squeegeeing.



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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.