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?”

Not one single approach to ending homelessness report says

Moving forward is a step by step process.

Homelessness in Canada can be dramatically reduced or even stopped if Canadians are willing to commit to addressing it according to a new report.

The State of Homelessness in Canada 2016 was released with the Canadian Alliance to End Homelessness and The Canadian Observatory on Homelessness. It examined the current state of homelessness and how they plan to reach their ten year targets.

According to the report released in mid-October, throughout the course of a year at least 235000 Canadians endure some sort of homelessness with an average of 35000 experiencing homelessness on any given night. Canada is making progress with fewer shelter visits and shorter stays.“We are seeing new partnerships, innovative solutions, systems-based plans to end homelessness and improved data collection and measurement of the issue” the report said.

The Ontario government is one of many making progress on its own target of reducing homelessness. The Expert Advisory Panel on Homelessness, Long-Term Affordable Housing Strategy and Ontario’s Poverty Reduction Strategy are each making investments in the province to reduce homelessness. The report said “Through a series of measures, including policy reform, increased funding and strategic targeting of specialized populations, Ontario is using evidence-based and community-led practices to build capacity to reduce poverty and end homelessness.”

The Government of Canada has committed a $2.3 billion investment into multiple affordable housing strategies, but mainly in the Homeless Partnering Strategy. This money will directly support communities who are in need of assistance to combat homelessness. “Most importantly” the report said “the Government of Canada coupled their investment with a commitment to create a National Housing Strategy (NHS).” The government will release the results of their consultations with Canadians on the National Housing Strategy Nov. 22.

In their plan costing $43.8 billion over ten years, the report highlights the need for a National Housing Strategy to end homelessness. The report recommends the government have a plan with clear outcomes, that renew and expand the Homeless Partnering Strategy, develop a new framework that work closely with provincial and territorial partners and specific strategies for targeting youth, indigenous and veteran homelessness.

The report recommends the continued support and collaboration with ‘A Way Home’ to better support youth on the streets and end homelessness. A Way Home is committed to working with various partners at all levels to adopt Housing First strategies and significantly reduce youth homelessness. Collaboration with Veterans Affairs Canada and models like the federal government investment in Indigenous affordable housing will ensure these groups have better outcomes.

To ensure affordable housing is available for those to get off the streets, the report makes some recommendations. It encourages the federal government to build more affordable housing while keeping those already built and applying a National Housing Benefit and affordable housing tax credit.

Ending with a look forward, the report says “We must strategize, innovate and invest until we have prevented and ended homelessness.”

New program hopes to end the cycle of being trapped by payday lenders

Hope for the hopeless.

Causeway Work Centre launched a new program Friday to help break the cycle of payday loans for those on social assistance and provide them with an alternative option.

The Causeway Community Finance Fund (CCFF) plans to provide individuals with reasonable loans at fair rates that are manageable to pay off. In partnership with Alterna Savings, Your Credit Union and Frontline Credit Union the pilot program will limit interest rates on the emergency loans to the prime interest rate (2.7 per cent) plus two to six per cent. Starting as a pilot year with $100,000 the program will be available to the 900 clients of Causeway and hopes to expand in the years following. Executive Director Don Palmer wants to ensure the pilot is executed well so in the future other organizations and banks can replicate the program.

The CCFF is new to the province of Ontario and will provide greater opportunities for those who would otherwise be unable to afford something bad to happen. In the case of a single mother of three kids who is tight on money, and an appliance breaks she would not be able to replace it without a loan. “We want her to be able to come to us and we want to be able to give her the money she needs on lending terms that are as low as possible and as long as possible,” Palmer said.

In Ontario, the loan industry is worth $1.5 billion. Ottawa has over 70 of the 800 outlets in the province with most being in low-income neighbourhoods where they are visibly present. The average payday lender charges $21 for every $100 borrowed and the loan must be paid off within two weeks. With the average loan being $435 the client is already facing a near $100 in interest. Palmer says this leads to clients going to the pay day lender next door to get a loan to pay off the interest on the first one. With the CCFF “You’re looking at significantly less than half of what any payday lender would ever provide” Palmer said.

Every client who receives a loan through the new program will go through financial literacy training so they do not end up at a payday lender again. This will help the clients of Causeway manage their money so they can end up developing a budget. Participants will be able to “Look at what’s coming in and look at what’s going out. Figure out how they can actually save some money and not go into debt” Palmer said.

Causeway Work Centre is a non-profit organization located in Ottawa that focuses on finding or creating employment for those who face disabilities and addictions. When someone comes to them looking for work they either help the person find a job or place them in one of their own social businesses. The four businesses they run include; catering business Krackers Katering, landscaping business Good Nature Groundskeeping and bicycle repair businesses Right Bike and Cycle Salvation. These programs provide employment, but also aid participants in going back to school or getting a job in another Ottawa business.

The CCFF is another way Causeway has innovated in hopes to alleviate the burdens of their clients.