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Toronto considers a complete ban on panhandling

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It was an issue that was bound to resurface sooner or later. After all, the two previous mayors attempted to sweep the streets clean of homeless and poor people.

So why should the Ford administration be any different?

"It creates a really nasty, harmful atmosphere in the city," said Cathy Crowe, street nurse and spokesperson for the Toronto Disaster Relief Committee. "We feel that there have been hate crimes against homeless people inspired by some of that language. And for sure less tolerance."

Some of that intolerance has led to an enormous increase in tickets handed out under the Safe Streets Act. In 2010, police laid 15,000 charges as compared with about 2,000 in 2004.

"They've done it because there's been some kind of direction or permission for them to focus their efforts on that," said Crowe. "And they know just as well as anyone that those tickets can't be paid."

Homeless and poor people panhandling barely have enough money for food and rent, much less to pay a $65 ticket. Single people on welfare receive $592 per month, $1053 per month if they're on the Ontario Disability Support Program. But it's hard to find a 1-bedroom apartment for under $800 per month.

The province's Safe Streets Act came into force in 1999 to prohibit people from panhandling for money in an aggressive manner and forbid panhandling near ATMs, pay phones and public transit stops.

"The majority of people ticketed are just begging," said Crowe. "And sure it makes some people feel uncomfortable but I can rarely think of a time when I've been aggressively panhandled."

So what's the recent crackdown really about then?

Crowe said it's about trying to reduce visible homelessness. Under Miller's regime, the bylaw against sleeping in civic squares like City Hall and Metro Hall came into effect. Miller also initiated the Toronto Homeless Count and the Streets to Homes Program.

Around the same time, social service agencies funded by the city were prohibited from handing out survival supplies like sleeping bags and hot food.

The attacks have been coming for a dozen years. But this time it's coupled with attempts at major funding cuts for food programs, shelters and drop-ins, which will inevitably lead to more panhandling.

"So they're trying to cut people off at both ends," she said.

And Councillor Mammoliti's suggestion, said Crowe, that, "they (panhandlers) can all be hospitalized is just laughable because he's talking in broad strokes that most people out there are mentally ill or drug addicted."

What isn't funny though is that Mammoliti's remarks could trigger a backlash of anger against panhandlers or homeless people, similar to what happened during Lastman's years as mayor.

"We actually had some hate crimes against homeless people that did occur," said Crowe.

Doug Johnson believes that any law that would completely ban panhandling in Toronto would have "the great virtue of being simultaneously unenforceable and unconstitutional."

Johnson, who began a joint program in Law and Theology at Duke University, has been coordinating street outreach programming for Sanctuary Ministries of Toronto since the summer of 2006.

The top courts in Canada, according to Johnson, that have ruled on panhandling bans have said that it's a protected form of expression. "So that's why municipalities and provinces have always had their lawyers craft such legislation to be only about aggressive or specific kinds of panhandling," said Johnson.

"There's no way of writing such a law that would not also ban people like Sick Kids panhandling for their cause."

Johnson said he started to notice a significant increase in tickets issued under the Safe Streets Act in the spring of 2006. "And they were writing them for everything even though the Act is very specific about what is aggressive panhandling," he said.

A group from Sanctuary met with then-mayor Miller that eventually led to an increase in resources by the city to help reduce the need to panhandle and a corresponding reduction in the number of tickets being issued. But over the last year and a half, said Johnson, the number of tickets has sharply increased.

During her first year in law school, Joanna Nefs founded a pro bono organization to represent people who had been accused of street involved provincial offenses and received tickets under the Safe Streets Act.

One of the biggest problems with the Safe Streets Act is that when people who have been on the streets for a number of years and accumulated several thousands of dollars in fines, said Nefs, "begin to make positive life decisions, to battle their addiction issues, commit to their recommended medical treatment, or enter a job placement program and they finally get a phone, the first phone call they get is from creditors asking for $20,000."

If the legislation was used the way it was written, said Nefs, which is to discourage aggressive behaviour, it wouldn't be too harmful. But she's got clients who get five or six tickets a day.

"Sometimes the officer will give you three tickets at once for (alleged) aggressively soliciting, encumbering the sidewalk and consuming alcohol in a place other than permitted," said Nefs. "So there's $265 worth of tickets right there. And then you move a block down the road and another officer comes up and gives you another three tickets."

"But when you get $20,000 worth of tickets for people who are now trying to get off the street, it makes it that much harder to make a fresh start. So you're actually doing the opposite of what you're trying to do."

Because Nefs's organization is the only one in Ontario doing this type of work, many homeless people go without representation and are being jailed under the Safe Streets Act for up to several weeks.

"And they're coming out again, put back on the streets to face exactly the same situation," said anti-poverty activist John Clarke, who has worked as an organizer with the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty (OCAP) for the past two decades.

"They certainly don't come out of the jails with any supports put in place to ensure that their situation changes."

Contrary to Councillor Mammoliti's claim that "many beg because they make $100 a day," Clarke said many people spend countless hours panhandling for very little money.

"This notion of begging as a lucrative trade is an old prejudice that's been around for a long time," said Clarke. "People panhandle because they're poor, destitute or desperate because people like Mammoliti have created that situation."

Clarke said people come into the OCAP office to complain that they've been given tickets when they weren't even panhandling. "They were just visibly poor people walking down the streets, stopped by the police and given these tickets," he said.

A number of years ago, Clarke witnessed a police officer giving a homeless man in a park a ticket. "He was wide awake, fully dressed and sitting on the park with a closed bag beside him and he was given a ticket for camping in a park without a permit," said Clarke.

"The cop had told him that the reason he was doing this was because the businesses across the street didn't want homeless people in the park."

Like Crowe, Clarke considers the attacks on homeless and poor people that panhandle as part of a broader agenda supported by the Ford administration that's designed to push them off the streets and out of the downtown core.

"But when a charitable organization is knocking on your door or on the street asking you for donations, we don't have a problem with that," said Catherine Bailey, a social worker who used to work on the streets of downtown Toronto with homeless people.

"In our culture, we don't like to see somebody who is destitute on the street asking for money."

But when Bailey does give to panhandlers, it's given unconditionally. "Once the money leaves my hand, it's not for me to be condescending and tell them how to spend it," she said. "Because I know people who will only give food or money to organizations."

So how is that different from making a person dependent on panhandling?

"We're now making them dependent on an organization," said Bailey. "It's the same thing."

When Bailey worked with homeless and at-risk youth, she thought it was ludicrous that a person needed an address to qualify for welfare. "How is person supposed to get an address if they don't have any cash?" she asked.

Bailey can't imagine what it must be like for a homeless person to have to face the daily barrage of rejection, hopelessness and insults. She's seen youth that were self medicating because of their poverty.

"It's relentless and there's no way out for most of them," she said. "It's such a multi-layered issue."

Jim Cosgrave, a sociology professor at Trent University, said an outright ban on panhandling is a drastic response to a social problem.

"Rather than treating panhandling in this way, why not give people access to the resources that they need?" asked Cosgrave.

From a sociological perspective, Cosgrave said it's part of an overall approach to law and order. "It's not disconnected from the Conservatives' interest in building more jails," he said. "It's criminalizing poverty rather than getting funding where it needs to go."

But what it really boils down to, he said, is who can dominate the framing of a social problem and define it in certain ways to gain political advantage.

"It (also) depends on the media outlet and who gets to the issue first," said Cosgrave. "And we live in a climate where people individualize problems rather than examine the social structures that created them."

It's a similar tactic, he said, used by the Harris Conservatives who were able to convince people that "the source of social problems doesn't lie at the top. It lies at the bottom. And that's a successful strategy of the right."

"Panhandling isn't a problem of individuals. Society produces it in some way but people don't generally look at the causes or sources. We live in a type of society that tends to blame individuals either for their successes or their failures."

And that individual blaming mentality is very much reflected in the type of laws that are created, said Jackie Esmonde, a lawyer with the Income Support Advocacy Centre.

"If you're not addressing the root of the problem then you're just going to be throwing people into situations (like panhandling) where they're being criminalized for social problems rather than their own individual conduct," said Esmonde.

"It just feels like every five or ten years we have exactly the same debate."

Esmonde recalled the "hysteria" over the squeegee kids who operated on street corners in the mid to late 1990s which eventually led to the Safe Streets Act that, she said, "is a complete ban on squeegeeing and comes very close to a complete ban on panhandling."

At the time it came into force, both the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty (OCAP) and Justice for Children and Youth, a Toronto based legal aid clinic, brought a constitutional challenge to the Safe Streets Act.

The defendants argued that the Act violated the right to life, liberty and security of the person because it prevented people from money to eat as well as the right to freedom of speech because it prohibited people asking for money.

They further claimed that the Act infringed the right to equality because soliciting by charities is exempted while soliciting by the poor is illegal.

In January 2007, the Ontario Court of Appeal upheld the constitutionality of the Act and the application to appeal to the Supreme Court of Canada was dismissed in August.

"If you look at the judgment, you can see a very, very conservative approach to understanding the issues," said Esmonde. "The equality analysis is very weak at least from a human rights perspective."

So Esmonde won't summarily dismiss the notion that a complete ban on panhandling couldn't withstand a constitutional challenge.

"The courts have certainly been moving in a very conservative direction," she said. "They have been fairly clear in rejecting equality arguments for the most part."

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