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.

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?”

Protestors send message of acceptance

On the day President Donald Trump’s revised travel ban was to come into place members of the Ottawa community gathered to send a message of peace.

Not only in Ottawa, but around the world they gathered at U.S. consulates and embassies to demand not just a hold, but a repeal of the executive order which bans travellers from six countries.

“It’s a U.S. order with global implications and ramifications,” Jacob Kuehn, media officer at Amnesty International Canada said.

In Ottawa, about 30 people gathered on a day marked by Amnesty International as a day of action.

Alex Neve, secretary general of Amnesty International Canada addressed the crowd holding a ‘#NoBanNoWall’ sign and called the new order the same as the old one, bigotry.

“This is at its core a ban that is about bigotry and discrimination and hatred,” Neve said.

According to Neve, the hardships faced by refugees are what keep the world so divided and unsafe. He said if Trump truly valued the safety and security of his country, he would be ensuring refugees are safe.

“This is not about safety and security,” Neve said. “This is about religious bigotry and hatred and that has no place…under international human rights law,” Neve said.

Although the United States has never been a country to always uphold human rights, Neve said the message the law sends matters to the world.

Neve called the judges who have already placed the ban on hold from Hawaii and Maryland courageous individuals who were able to see the law for what it is. He said these holds are only temporary and they do not solve the actual problem.

He said repeal of the legislation is the only way to solve the problem.

“What we need is for the ban to be put to bed once and for all,” Neve said.

To terminate the law, the public must demand it be. On this day the crowd chanted ‘no ban, no wall’ and ‘no hate, no fear, refugees are welcome here’ to express their disproval.

Anne Mader was one of those people chanting. For the first time in her life she was at a protest. She had mailed letters before as a way of having her voice heard, but this day was necessary because of the recent events in the United States.

Mader’s parents are immigrants from Holland and she is a first generation Canadian. Being a pluralist, welcoming society just makes sense for Mader.

“The message (no hate, no fear) resonated because my parents were welcomed here,” Mader said.

The warm welcome they received, Mader said all immigrants deserve.

“An inclusive society is a safer society,” Mader said. “Where everyone is respected as a member and a participant.”

Basic Income is up for debate

Ontario’s proposed basic minimum income does not come without a difference of opinion.

The conversation around money is not an easy discussion to have.

The Carleton University chapter of the Ontario Economic Development Society (OEDS) held a panel discussion Thursday evening to discuss the implications of introducing a Basic Income Pilot Project in the province of Ontario.

The notion of such a plan was introduced by former senator Hugh Segal and proposes a basic income of $1 320 per month.

In their policy report, OEDS recommended the Ontario government adopt a pilot that caters to Canadian citizens living in poverty, in the Toronto area who can prove they have applied for other social service programs.

Additionally, OEDS recommended a benefit in which those earning less than $30 000 per year receive a 50 per cent tax break.

Mancini Ho, a member of OEDS said the success of the pilot should be measured by housing stability and the impact it has on health and education.

Kevin Kozo agrees. He said a basic income has the ability to change a mindset.

After packing up and leaving his home of Toronto in 2014 Kozo ended up on the streets of Vancouver for nearly two months. Kozo said he could have been stuck in the cycle of homelessness, but was helped by social programs.

“If your prosperity goes up, your general well-being goes up,” Kozo said.

Now a first year law student at Carleton, Kozo said going from a basic income of $8 000 per year to the proposed near $16 000 changes everything.

“I have what I need so I can pursue what I want,” Kozo said of the benefits of a higher income.

Marc Gallant works with each of his clients at The Ottawa Mission so they, like Kozo can get off the streets.

He said money cannot buy happiness, but without a change in finances of the poor in our community he said the cycle will never end.

“The main thing that keeps people in poverty is finances,” Gallant said.

That’s because his clients are always faced with a choice. The money they get from the government doesn’t add up to meet their needs he said.

“It’s always about choosing one or the other,” Gallant said.

This pilot is not going to solve the problem, professor and economist Stanley Winer said.

“I think poor people will be worse off under such a scheme,” Winer said.

He points to similar federal government pilots that have been introduced and not went ahead because of the basic issue of cost.

“The taxpayers of Ontario and the taxpayers of Canada will not be prepared to provide a satisfactory basic income,” Winer said.

He said the Working Income Tax Benefit (WITB) with no basic income guarantee, that only subsidizes those who work and encourages others to do the same is an alternative that should be considered.

Those in attendance agreed change is necessary. How that change takes place is still up for discussion.

Combatting hunger

Ottawa Food Bank held their annual general meeting earlier this month.

The Ottawa Food Bank aims to provide access to food for all people of Ottawa, but they recognize they can always do more.

That’s why at their annual general meeting on Monday, partner agencies and community members came together to celebrate the work that was done, and look forward with hope.

In 2016, the food bank was able to put close to six million pounds of food in the hands of those who needed it. Also in 2016, they focused on how they could better serve the community.

Michael Maidment, executive director of the Ottawa Food Bank, shared with those in attendance the results of a community consultation they began in September.

Stakeholders told the food bank they wanted them to improves access to healthy food, educate the community and build capacity in the food system.

“I want you to walk away knowing we heard you,” Maidment said.

Those tasked with putting these themes into action are the board of directors and its three newly appointed members.

Sylvie Manser is one of those new board members. Currently she is the executive director of the Banff Avenue Community House, in which she and her team provide educational and social service programs to a low-income community.

Manser is looking forward to the opportunity to work with the food bank and fight hunger in Ottawa. According to Manser, learning about the many programs the food bank offers will help her better serve the communities she works with.

For her, it’s important the voices of the community are brought to the board so the programs developed work for them.

“It’s really important to be the voice for the community,” Manser said.

Ivan Gedz, co-owner of Union Local 613, is also a new recruit for the food bank board. Initially apprehensive to the idea, he has since become more comfortable with this new role.

Gedz is hopeful the relationships he has developed with the many people involved in the food industry are able to help the food bank.

“I have a lot of connections with the food service industry so perhaps I can leverage those relationships,” Gedz said by email.

Gedz is excited to use those relationships to shape policy and change the plight of those going hungry. As a restaurant owner, he recognizes the irony of this position, but hopes it will allow him to sleep better at night.

“There is something very perverse about serving decadence to those that can afford it while watching those that cannot go hungry,” Gedz said.

With their new board members, the Ottawa Food Bank will continue to grow their food programs for those who need it most.

The lawyer who serves

Tyler Botten volunteers for the Ticket Defence Program to make a difference.

For Tyler Botten, being a lawyer means more than just defending your client in court – it means providing a voluntary legal service to the street-involved.

Along with his role as a criminal defence lawyer, Botten regularly volunteers for the Ticket Defence Program of Ottawa (TDP).

Working with lawyers and law students, the program aims to provide access to justice for street-involved persons in Ottawa. The program meets many clients through referrals, but also visits shelters and drop-in programs to spread the word.

The program has a history dating back to 2003, but with a relaunch in 2015 Botten was asked if he could help. At that time, he had just left his job at a law firm with plans to open his own and with more time on his hands he agreed.

“I was looking for something to do that was going to be different,” he said.

At any given time, Botten and his colleagues are working on 10 to 15 cases for TDP, along with their primary role at work. The volunteering Botten does is very similar to his day job, but this program makes concrete difference in the lives of those he serves.

“For the individuals we deal with it can be more impactful on them directly,” Botten said.

Albeit most of the tickets Botten deals with through the program are minor, they can have lasting effects.

In work like this, sometimes it’s the consequences of the issue being unresolved that can have more effects than resolving it. In one his most recent cases, a woman was unable to buy a home until she had her creditors cleared.

“I get to deal with real world human problems,” Botten said.

For the homeless, panhandling tickets they can’t pay begin racking up. Without a representative like Botten, the dollars continue to add up without any hope of ending the cycle. Even with his defence, his volunteerism does sometimes feel like it’s not going anywhere.

“The best I can do is just fight the new tickets as they’re coming in,” he said.

The cycle is due to the nature of the work Botten does with the Safe Streets Acts. Aiming to protect the public, the act fails to significantly quantify what panhandlers can and can’t do.

For now, Botten will fight the tickets, but he said, he hopes the program is able to do more to help offenders.

“I would like to know about every Safe Streets Act ticket,” he said.

This data would help him and his colleagues understand how these tickets are being issued and if there is any consistency. Lacking a quantifiable measure makes room for subjectivity amongst officers and that’s where issues arise.

“The legislature at Queens Park can create these parameters, but it’s how it gets filled in that causes problems,” Botten said.

Botten doesn’t advocate for a repeal of the Safe Streets Act, but does recognize that data on how the tickets are being issued could help train frontline police officers and ultimately save our courts time and money.

At the moment, all Botten is focused on is continuing to defend his clients in court and help them avoid the consequences of having minor tickets add up to thousands of dollars. The process can be slow, dealing with one person at a time, but it’s really about making a difference.

“It’s having someone stand up for them.”

 

Play challenges norms

Talking about a taboo subject matter like sexual assault is difficult – The Ghomeshi Effect takes the stories of sexual assault victims centre stage to begin a conversation.

The play opened Thursday at The Gladstone Theatre to a sold-out crowd from all walks of life. Using verbatim dance-theatre the script was formed from a series of 40 interviews done with victims of sexual assault.

For Jessica Ruano, director and creator, this moment was a long time coming.

Ruano felt passionate about putting on this play because of her own experience of sexual violence and because of the issues her friends have had when they bring their case to the legal system.

“The way the legal system handles sexual assault cases has been proven to be problematic and divisive,” Ruano said.

According to Statistics Canada, 90 per cent of sexual assault cases are not reported to the police. The play highlights why many don’t bring their case forward and how those who do endure a variety of struggles.

“I didn’t pursue charges so I could survive,” one character said referring to why they kept their assault out of the legal system.

Those who did bring their cases forward told of the struggles they endured to have their side believed amongst questions from the public and the legal system that had nothing to do with their story.

“There’s a problem with the textbook” another character said referring to the justice system.

For audience members like Patricia Hubert, the play echoed their own experiences.

“I don’t think I’ve spoke to anyone who’s had a positive experience with the police,” she said.

Ruano hopes the The Ghomeshi Effect encourages conversation around the commonly held assumptions about sexual violence and the institutions that handle the cases.

The play is just one aspect of the conversation that is beginning around sexual violence.

Throughout the 10 days the production is playing, The Ghomeshi Effect has partnered with non-violence community organizations to host panel discussions and workshops focused on education and making a difference in the legal system.

Instead of reacting out of anger or sadness to sexual violence cases and how they’re handled, Ruano hopes The Ghomeshi Effect allows people to think critically before forming a rash response.

“Our play is a response rather than a reaction,” she said.

Looking forward, the production examines ways the justice system could change to better represent victims of sexual assault, with the ultimate goal of prevention.

The Ghomeshi Effect runs until Jan. 28 at The Gladstone Theatre and plans to tour.

Harsh Realities: Ontario youth unemployment isn’t getting better

Young people are being left out of the workforce.

Across Ontario, young people are the last to get hired and first get fired. Hannah Vervoort knows exactly what this feels like.

The 18-year-old currently studies political science at Carleton University and is jobless. Like many other young people in the province is unemployed and facing many struggles to find and keep a job.

Lacking a job in a new city and living on her own for the first time, Vervoort needs help from home.

She had a job in her hometown of Thunder Bay, but was forced to leave her position when she came to Ottawa for school. That job at Shoppers Drug Mart took her three years to find and now after nearly four months in Ottawa she’s facing the same issue.

Vervoort is looking for something that fits her school schedule, is accessible by transit and somewhere in line with her interests. None of these things are the problem.

Experience was the problem and Vervoort did not have any.

“Everywhere wanted at least a year or two of experience,” she said.

Hannah Vervoort is part of an ongoing trend of the struggle of young people to find and keep a job. Unemployment numbers suggest many young people are being shut out of the workforce.

Statistics Canada puts Ontario’s unemployment rate for those 15 and older at 6.3 per cent. That’s better than the rebound after the 2008 financial crisis when it stood at 9.6 per cent in June 2009.

The troubling statistic for many is Ontario lags behind the national unemployment rate for 15 to 24 year olds sitting at 13.5 per cent compared to the national average of 12.9 per cent.

Sean Geobey expected to see the unemployment rates climb for everyone after the 2008 crisis, but did not predict that the rates for young people would not recover.

“This isn’t a problem we expect to be going away,” he said.

Geobey is a professor at the University of Waterloo and researches how the workforce and the labour market are changing. He attributes the lack of employment recovery for youth in Ontario to the shift away from the manufacturing industry. Then there’s the fact that people also aren’t retiring as early as they used to. Cutback in social spending is another factor.

It turns out, the issue isn’t a lack of jobs, it’s the result of a gap between skills employers are looking for and what students are taught in school. Students are expected to come out of school with a fresh degree and know specialized skills employers are looking for.

Focused on their own bottom line employers have dramatically cut back on training costs over the past 20 years. “When employers decide they are not going to invest in that (training) no one benefits,” Geobey said.

Vervoort is unsure of the job she will land after she graduates, but she can be sure that without a change she will have to learn how to do her job without any training from her employer.

Noticing this shift in investment, educators are now doing their best to prepare students for a changing work environment.

Ontario’s colleges develop, change and lose programs based on advice from industry advisors and data from the labour market. These programs are developed and tailored to specific industries to help students develop specific skills.

Invented to fill a gap from universities, colleges aim to give everyone an opportunity at a job.

“The purpose of college is to make sure kids get trained for jobs when they graduate,” said Linda Franklin, President of Colleges Ontario.

For Franklin, experiential learning is critical to helping students develop specialized skills and get jobs. Almost 70 per cent of college programs have one form of experiential learning to provide students with training they will not receive in the workplace and provide them with definable hands-on skills.

While experiential learning may be of incredible value for students, Franklin says apprenticeships, while still valuable, are difficult to begin with.

“It’s really hard to figure out how to be an apprentice in this province. Almost impossible,” Franklin said.

Students face large obstacles; finding an employer and dealing with tremendous bureaucracy.

With cut backs on training and focus on the bottom line, companies are more hesitant to take on an apprentice. It has become expensive for a company to teach someone how to become a skilled trades person.

Bringing young people into the labour force does not just rest on investment from educators and employers, but from all segments of the population.

Many non-profit groups, and social programs attempt to combat the problem of youth unemployment. None of them have helped Vervoort. These programs target segments of the population that were already on the fringes.

Last year, HireUp launched in the Toronto area with the goal of ending youth homelessness and getting jobs for disadvantaged youths. Although the program only helped two youth find jobs, the job portal has learned several valuable lessons.

The job portal is not simply enough. Knowing now that employers want youth coming to them with skills HireUp is planning to develop resources that train youth in particular industries. These skills can then be transferred to a job.

Because they have partnered with 36 other youth organizations across Canada including the Youth Services Bureau in Ottawa, they recognize the need for all parties to work together.

“If everyone works in isolation we are never going to move the needle on this,” Cameron Voyame, project coordinator at HireUp, said.

This ensures everyone is working towards the same goal and bridging the gaps youth face when trying to get a job.

With a particular focus on vulnerable youth the Expert Panel on Youth Unemployment hopes to provide recommendations to government to help end youth unemployment. By travelling across the country, the panel will engage with Canadian youth to hear about their struggles and ways the government could help them.

Panel Chair Vasiliki Bednar, says, the final report is due in March 2017, and it may not help a young person find a job next year. But, it may propose budgetary changes, or reform of the Canada Summer Jobs Program.

Back at Carleton, Vervoort isn’t aware of the many programs that could be helping her get a job. She wants more help and is hopeful this panel can do something for her.

“One of the biggest things is just to reach out to those who are unemployed,” she said. Helping those who are unemployed proves to be more productive for our entire economy.

With a member of her family being laid off a couple of years ago she knows the detrimental effects being unemployed has on everyone. She now wonders if her degree will actually be productive in providing her with a job that allows her to enjoy a stable income.

For now, like the many other young people in the province, she continues looking for a job and waits. Vervoort knows that without a dramatic shift she will be the last one hired.