One of the major challenges of working with people who experience homeless is addressing their legal and justice issues, the range of which are varied and complex. This means not only dealing with individuals encounters with police, the courts and corrections – in some cases as a result of their illegal activities - but also their experiences as victims of crime. It also means addressing difficulties individuals may experience in dealing with unscrupulous employers and landlords, as well as helping them address issues relating to family law and immigration. Solid legal support is often difficult to come by for people with little or no income, and in most jurisdictions there are usually profound limitations to the kinds of support that legal aid clinics can provide. An interesting model of support is provided by Justice for Children and Youth in Toronto (see sidebar).
Providing support for people who experience homelessness means more than individual intervention and advocacy; it must also redefine the role and use of law enforcement with regards to youth homelessness. This is said with full acknowledgement of the defined role that police services, courts and corrections have in our society. Unfortunately, one of the consequences of the rise of homelessness as a visible ‘problem’ is that in many communities, law enforcement becomes a strategy to address what is essentially a social and economic issue. Calls for police to issue tickets or ‘move people along’ often go hand in hand with legislation that redefines common activities that homeless people engage in – like sleeping in parks, or panhandling, for instance – as illegal. Such policies and practices, meant to render homelessness less ‘visible’ or annoying to the public, local businesses and politicians, is considered the ‘criminalization of homelessness’.
Retooling the emergency response does not simply mean doing new things, it means stopping things that do not work, and are clearly counter-productive. There is considerable evidence that the criminalization of homelessness has many negative consequences for the individuals involved – including burdensome fines that do not go away, traumatic encounters that undermine relations with police, and potentially time in jail . All of this can actually get in the way of helping people move forward with their lives. It is also worth pointing out that the criminalization of homelessness is a very expensive way to address the problem, in terms of the cost of policing, court time, and the warehousing of homeless people in prison. It is simply bad policy and bad practice.
Some communities have developed innovative responses to the criminalization of homelessness. This includes novel approaches to policing that put the priority on helping people make links with appropriate community services and supports as an alternative to ticketing or incarceration. As well, some communities have developed innovative strategies to address the fact that the accumulation of minor charges becomes a barrier to helping people move off the streets. Many people who are homeless build up large debt loads that can amount to thousands of dollars. In some jurisdictions in the United States, ‘homelessness courts’ have been established where, similar to ‘drug courts’, people can have charges reduced or dismissed in exchange for community service. Finally, some communities have developed diversion strategies – including withdrawing charges outright – to help people leaving homelessness reduce or eliminate their debt accumulated from ticketing.