Report finds Toronto police aggressively ticket the homeless Toronto police are ticketing the city’s homeless more aggressively than ever, despite a decline in offences, according to a new report by researchers at York University and the University of Guelph.
The report, which was released today, looked at interactions between Toronto police and homeless people, particularly youth. Researchers conducted an 11-year-long statistical review of the Ontario Safe Streets Act, enacted in 2000, and interviewed 244 street youth.
They found that the number of tickets issued under the Safe Streets Act rose from 710 in 2000 to 15,224 in 2010, an increase of more than 2000 per cent. Yet panhandling and squeegeeing are declining in Toronto: In 2009, three per cent of street youth listed panhandling and squeegeeing as their main source of income, a significant drop from 29 per cent in 1999.
“Our research raises serious questions about the use of law enforcement as a strategy to address the visibility of homelessness in Canada,” says report co-author Bill O’Grady, a sociology professor at the University of Guelph. “We hope it will get people to think about whether the problem is really homeless people behaving badly,” he says.
Tickets issued under the Safe Streets Act total more than $4 million in fines; the average fine is worth $60. Issuing those tickets is estimated to cost nearly $1 million in police hours, notes report co-author Steve Gaetz, a professor in York’s Faculty of Education and director of the Canadian Homelessness Research Network.
“Are the police merely responding to increases in aggressive panhandling, or is the ticketing part of a broader strategy of criminalizing homelessness in Canada? Given that these tickets are being issued to people who have limited means to pay, it also raises the question of whether this is a good use of resources,” Gaetz says. “We need to put more resources into addressing the root of the problem, rather than punishing people for ending up on the street.”
Right: Report co-author Steve Gaetz, a professor in York’s Faculty of Education and director of the Canadian Homelessness Research Network.
The report recommends repealing the Safe Streets Act and the use of ticketing. It also says homeless shelters should be open around the clock, and that the police should work collaboratively with homeless service providers to find alternatives to ticketing and arrests.
Other key findings:
- 78 per cent of street youth report having an encounter with police in the past year, with three-quarters reporting more than one incident.
- 33 per cent of street youth have received at least one ticket from police in the past year, with males receiving nearly twice as many as females
– simply being male increases the likelihood of police contact regardless of their involvement in crime.
- 20 per cent of tickets were for aggressive solicitation and 80 per cent were for “non-aggressive solicitation of a captive audience” (such as soliciting those waiting at a bank machine or passing on a roadway).
- Black and Aboriginal street youth receive more police attention than white youth for less serious violations, but this is not the case for more serious offences.
- Homeless youth have much more negative attitudes about police and the court system than youth who have housing.
The report, “Can I See Your ID? Policing and Youth Homelessness”, was prepared for Justice for Children and Youth, a non-profit legal aid clinic in Toronto. Kristy Buccieri, a York University PhD student, is also a co-author. O’Grady, Gaetz and Buccieri are all members of the York University-based Canadian Homeless Research Network.