Begging for change in Ontario

The Safe Streets Act aims to protect the public while issuing tickets to members of the population that can’t afford them.

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The legitimacy of the Safe Streets Act can be argued, but what cannot be debated is the $8,000 worth of Safe Streets Act tickets Proshanto Smith has received over the last several years.

That amount only increases as Smith continues to panhandle in order to supplement his income.

The key organizer for the Ottawa Panhandlers Union found himself on the street nine years ago and turned to panhandling for his daily needs. Today, he panhandles to supplement the little income he receives from his Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP) funding.

He will typically find himself sitting on a corner in front of a store asking those who are shopping if they can spare any change.

Smith said his tagline is, “Excuse me sir or ma’am can you please spare a little change or perhaps some grocery food or a bite to eat? God Bless you and have a good day.”

This sentence has cost him $8,000.

Although he still has incidents with the Ottawa Police and is issued tickets, Smith panhandles because he finds people are willing to help.

“People are generally good people and generally want to help the community and each other,” Smith said.

The $8,000 Smith owes to the City of Ottawa in safe streets violations did not impact him while he was on the streets, but he said it does now.

“I can’t function without a credit,” Smith said.

Proshanto Smith is one of many living in Ontario facing violations under the Safe Streets Act that cannot be payed.

The Safe Streets Act was introduced in 1999 under the Mike Harris Progressive Conservative government. It came at a time squeegee kids would solicit motorists for spare change after cleaning their windshields.

It prohibits deemed aggressive panhandling in the name of public safety. At the same time, the law is very broad and makes room for much discretion in the issuing of tickets.

Since its creation in 1999, the law has faced backlash from the wider community and constitutional challenges. In 2005, an appeal brought forward by a group of young people ticketed under the Safe Streets Act was dismissed and upheld its constitutionality.

Some say the legislation specifically targets members of the street-involved population in a way no other legislation could discriminate against a subset of the population.

Others say police officers have too much discretion to interpret what the legislation means by ‘near’ and ‘aggressive’ and say this contributes to inconsistencies in regards to how tickets are issued.

“Cops are given too much power to decide what is aggressive, what is not aggressive, what is illegal, what is not illegal,” Smith said.

Constable Doug Belanger is a member of the Ottawa Police Service. He has served the Byward Market and Vanier areas of Ottawa for the past 10 years, allowing him to gain much experience in dealing with street-involved persons.

Over that time, he has seen a dramatic shift in the way street-involved persons are dealt with by police, but recognizes how the Safe Streets Act is used.

“It’s a blunt tool used to address a symptom of a broad issue,” Belanger said.

It is a tool that many police officers across Ontario use on a daily basis, but according to Belanger the way the tool is used differs.

Officers use their own discretion upon arrival at a scene he said. Their discretion differs by their level of experience, background and often times businesses in the area who do not want panhandlers in front of their stores Belanger said.

“The approach of discretion is very subjective and varies by officer,” Belanger said.

At scene, an officer can either warn the client, charge them or do nothing, but Belanger said warnings do very little to solve the larger issue.

Belanger recognizes issuing a ticket is often meaningless as an effective deterrent, but said it does have advantages. Officers are able to establish a good rapport with regular clients, monitor their behaviour and pursue other sorts of intervention if needed.

If all else fails, Belanger said a charge has the ability to bring an individual before the court and deal with the issue.

He recognizes the frustrations many activists have and said he shares much of the same, but Belanger said officers enforce the law and should not be expected to fix problems in social work and treatment areas.

As former Attorney General of Ontario, Michael Bryant had an opportunity to repeal the law, but did not. He takes responsibility for what he calls a failure on his part.

Bryant said this failure happened because he was unable to see the impact of the law on the homeless population.

“I didn’t identify [with the homeless] and I was definitely afraid [of the homeless],” Bryant said.

Bryant said he was still afraid when he was arrested, charged and left at a homeless drop-in centre called Sanctuary in Toronto. The fear dissipated as he became friends with members of the street-involved community.

“I have learned to identify with people I didn’t use to be able to identify with,” Bryant said.

According to Bryant, stigma around the homeless population created a law that now targets a specific segment of the population in the way no other legislation can.

Now able to identify with the homeless population, Bryant finds it a challenge to relate to the police officer who is only enforcing the law.

“The challenge for me is to identify with the police police officer who is doing their job,” Bryant said.

As a result of police enforcing the law, many others like Smith are having tickets pile up worth hundreds and thousands of dollars.

For this reason, organizations like the Ticket Defence Program Ottawa have been created and are defending those ticketed under the Safe Streets Act for free.

Tyler Botten is a defence lawyer with his own practice, but began volunteering with the TDP about two years ago. Botten notices the cyclical nature of the legislation that targets the same people over and over again.

For now, he is only able to continue to fight tickets as they come to him, but has bigger hopes for the program.

“I would like to know about every safe streets ticket,” he said.

Botten said this data would allow him and his colleagues to understand how tickets are being issued. He said having the statistics would inform him, but could also help train officers and save our courts time and money.

The Ticket Defence Program is one of a handful of organizations in the area with a similar objective.

While many call for a full repeal of the legislation, others have ideas on how the public could be protected without issuing tickets.

Susan Richer has worked as a criminal defence lawyer in Ottawa for the past 38 years and proposes a method of supervision, rather than issuing tickets.

She said this eliminates the need to ticket and process through the justice system, thus saving time and money. Richer said this way of supervision would ensure peace and stop the disciplinary measure of the Safe Streets Act.

Still panhandling, Proshanto Smith has regular interactions with people on the street he said want to help him. He acknowledges some people may not like panhandlers, but said he should still be able to ask.

“Ask yourself,” Smith said. “Is it really appropriate to tell people they can’t ask for money?”

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