Downtown Ottawa is a hectic place. Brimming with the hustle and bustle of cars and cabs, city buses, shoppers, and professionals young and old, it can be easy to overlook and ignore the people who are down there all the time.
But down there they are. They sit with their cardboard signs, patched clothes, black hoodies, and destitute demeanor as they panhandle in front of busy areas such as Bank street or the Rideau Centre. Rain or shine, warm or freezing cold, you can usually spot a few of them panhandling in the downtown core.
In Toronto, city councillor Giorgio Mammoliti recently proposed a plan to crack down on the panhandling problem. The plan involves jail time and hospitalization for repeat panhandling offenders. He offered no details regarding help and support that would be made available to the people arrested.
Ottawa enforces similar anti-panhandling legislation. In 1999, Ontario passed the misleadingly-named Safe Streets Act. The act criminalized aggressive panhandling, including the practice of squeegeeing people’s windows for change.
The Safe Streets Act has been largely criticized by groups such as the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty for its vagaries, specifically regarding the lack of a precise definition for “aggressive panhandling” amidst separate definitions of aggressive behaviour related to soliciting. The act prescribes punitive measures against the poor, and has been denounced for ignoring the root causes of panhandling and homelessness: poverty. The Safe Streets Act exacerbates the poverty problem by giving out large fines to homeless people caught panhandling in the downtown area.
Such an approach begs the question: is poverty itself being criminalized?
“I get tickets all the time,” said Louis, a 22 year old panhandler. “But to me, there’s nothing aggressive about sitting on the sidewalk, politely asking people for change and then wishing them a nice day regardless of the outcome. I don’t pester people. If they say no once, I just say have a nice day, you know? I’m just sitting here, but I still get these $65 or $100 tickets,” he said. Louis currently lives on the streets in Ottawa.
Police seem unable or unwilling to arrest the hordes of white-collar criminals whose sketchy practices have led to major global recessions over the past decade. Yet on the other end of the spectrum, when it comes to a homeless person, the police response rate for begging is amazingly fast.
“People see a kid panhandling on the sidewalk and they think, ‘how can I help them? The police will know what to do,’” stated a middle-aged shopkeeper in the Byward Market. “Then the cops come and give the kid a ticket and send him on his way. He’s not going to be able to pay that ticket. He can’t even pay his rent. All it does is make it even harder to get out of a bad situation.”
Tim, a 31 year old panhandler, observes, “We don’t really have many options available here. Like, I can’t wake up tomorrow and go and get myself a really good job and have a nice apartment. It would take years and years of really trying hard to get to where I want to be.” Tim currently lives on the streets of Ottawa with his dog Emma. He has been on and off the streets for the last 15 years.
While some government aid programs do exist, their effectiveness in terms of helping people to get out of their situation is minimal. Welfare recipients in Ontario receive $368 to pay rent, and approximately $264 for everything else. Waiting lists for subsidized housing in Ottawa are as long as five years. The choice facing homeless aid recipients is difficult: combine all of your money and try to get access to a room in a rooming house, leaving yourself nearly penniless for all other needs, or remain homeless but have some money available.
“Rent in Ottawa, all you can get is a room for $500,” Tim stated. “The conditions in the rooming houses are terrible to begin with...but if you’re down and out, and you’re only getting $500 a month, you can’t live like that. You’re going to end up on the streets, you’re going to be depressed, you’re going to turn to drugs, and you’re going to have all these police problems,” he said.
“It’s just a vicious bullshit cycle.”
Tim is also critical of the social programs available to the homeless. “I think there are enough programs out there, but I just don’t think they’re really cut out to do what they’re supposed to be doing. There’s help out there, but there’s no real direction. There’s no way out.”
Out of the meagre funds some homeless people have access to, lawmakers still demand they pay fines as punishment for poverty.
“We don’t really read the tickets anymore. I rip them up,” stated Amanda. “I can’t pay them anyway.” She and her partner Philly have been on and off the streets for the past twelve years.
“A lot of the laws [of the Safe Streets Act] are kind of stupid,” added Philly. “I don’t see why they expect street kids to pay for tickets that we can’t afford.”
Amanda continued, “I don’t think they follow the Safe Streets Act properly. Aren’t we allowed to be homeless? They ticket anybody on the sidewalk.”
In their dealings with the police, the conversation took a darker turn.
“They beat on me,” said Amanda. “When I was sixteen or seventeen I was drunk and they put me into the drunk tank...they told me to strip naked in front of two men, and they both felt me up.”
When asked whether she had considered pressing charges, Amanda replied that she hadn’t because it would have made living downtown even more difficult.
She’s not the only person to have had a bad experience in dealing with the police.
“Nobody’s perfect,” Tim said. “But to them, you’re an animal. Every time I’ve encountered them has been a terrible experience. They’re amazingly aggressive.”
The criminalization of panhandling is well on its way, but giving tickets to the homeless is just a band-aid solution. What is really required are mass policy changes and better government programs.
“There’s a lot of work to be done,” Tim concluded. “But it’s going to take a lot of organizations, a lot of people with good hearts.”
This article first appeared in the Leveller, Vol. 4, No. 2 (Oct./Nov.2011).