Criminalizing Poverty: A National Trend
Talk to any person who is panhandling downtown in our nation’s capital and they will know the term. They will likely have a story about being “red zoned”.
Red zoning is the term associated with a police officer’s final warning for Ottawa’s panhandlers to stay away from a specific part of the city. If they violate the red zone condition, people can face fines far beyond their financial means and, ultimately, jail time.
The criminalization of panhandling in this province is outlined in the Ontario Safe Streets Act. Under this legislation, a police officer can arrest someone who they deem to be an “aggressive” panhandler. The fines for this are astronomical when you consider that the people receiving them are typically homeless. Fines can run up to $500 with the first offense, doubling to $1,000 with the second offense – with the possible addition of up to 6 months in jail.
Last October, a formerly homeless man named Gerry Williams successfully got $65,000 worth of unpaid fines thrown out by the Ontario Court of Justice. Williams struggled with many of the problems that affect much of Canada’s homeless population, such as addiction and mental health issues, which led him to accumulate approximately 450 fines while living on the streets in Toronto.
The criminalization of poverty is not only happening in Ontario – it is a national trend. For example, just last year, a St. John’s city counsellor sought to have panhandlers removed from street medians. As Dan Meades from Transition House Association of Newfoundland and Labrador, suggested in an interview, in order to combat panhandling, adequate funding is required for mental health issues, addictions, and affordable housing.
At least 235,000 people in Canada experience homelessness every year with 35,000 Canadians being homeless on a given night. Legislation like the Ontario Safe Streets Act does nothing but punish these individuals, who are some of the most vulnerable members in our society. Low-income Canadians, especially those who are homeless, are more likely to be detained when they are arrested, be denied bail, plead guilty to be convicted of criminal charges, and have more difficulties during reintegration from incarceration.
The United Nations Special Rapporteur for Adequate Housing and CWP’s Executive Director, Leilani Farha, had to this to say about the criminalization of poverty in her report to the United Nations Human Rights Council in 2015: “Such laws are often framed under the guide of public health and safety but, in reality, the aim is to ‘beautify’ an area for the promotion of tourism and business or to increase property values.”
With Canada’s 150th anniversary coming up, there is genuine concern that the criminalization of poverty in our nation’s capital will increase dramatically.
As former Ontario Attorney General Michael Bryant described, ticketing those who are homeless, in particular those who have addictions and mental health issues, is “the definition of kicking somebody when they’re down”. We need a shift from reactive policies to proactive ones and we need to stop kicking people while they are down.
Sarah DelVillano is a Placement Student at CWP in the Carleton University Bachelor of Arts: Human Rights honours program. She is also pursuing two minors in Anthropology and Political Science.