Shifts in public policy in Canada that restrict the rights of people without shelter have resulted in the criminalization of homelessness. The activities of people experiencing homelessness - including subsistence strategies such as panhandling and squeegeeing – are considered criminal, as is their very presence in public and semi-public spaces. Laws, public policies and the logic of government often contribute to marginalizing vulnerable individuals in the name of public safety. The legal system, as it relates to individuals experiencing homelessness, is increasingly exclusionary. It limits citizenship and freedom of speech; demonizes street youth; criminalizes panhandling and squeegeeing; and, limits access to public space.
Organizations argue that insufficient and under funded local mental health services have contributed to an increased criminalization of persons with mental illness. Because community mental health services receive very little as base budgets, people with mental illnesses and their families aren’t getting the community services they need to help them cope. In turn, pressures on the police, hospitals and other emergency services are increased. Although provision is currently made for specialized assessment, treatment and reintegration of mentally disordered offenders into society, these services are hampered by a chronic lack of resources.
Police services, courts, and correctional facilities are not equipped to contend with issues unique to people experiencing poverty and homelessness. They are not designed to substitute for health and social services. Police officers may not be properly trained to deal with the complex needs of persons experiencing homelessness and individuals with mental illnesses, for example, and their powers - under provincial mental health laws - are restricted. Still, in many communities, police are forced to take on the role of mental health worker. Recognition of the interconnectedness of mental illness, homelessness and the criminal justice system is a necessary first step in developing a course of action that appropriately addresses this growing social problem.