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.

Tanya Gulliver-GarciaResearch CoordinatorCanadian Observatory on Homelessness/Homeless Hub; York University