September 15, 2015
This Tuesday while attending drop-in hours at the Centretown Community Health Centre (CCHC), I had the pleasure of attending a presentation on the Safe Streets Act for CCHC Board Members with Vanessa Davies, a TDP volunteer. Several topics concerning the Safe Streets Act (SSA) were discussed. The SSA, Ms. Davies explained, is largely used as a mechanism for business owners to enforce nuisance complaints against street-involved people. For instance, the densest areas of ticketing for panhandling are Bronson Avenue and Byward market, which is consistent with the foot traffic and storefront area in downtown Ottawa. The increase of property values and the “not in my backyard” (NIMBY) movement has also encouraged a strict interpretation of the SSA. Law enforcement agents tend to treat panhandlers as a nuisance under the SSA (aka the “sweep street act”). Attendees agreed that this law does not benefit anyone and were shocked to hear that the city’s poorest are facing mounting fines in the face of dwindling social resources and affordable housing
Some panhandlers who are prosecuted tend to collect fines beyond their means to pay, which can have a tremendous psychological impact on the individual as they can be denied official documents, become hounded by collection agencies or lose their credit rating, which is sometimes necessary to obtain housing, which only serves to perpetuate the cycle of poverty. For instance, Ms. Davies recounted dealing with one particularly devastated client who thought the problem lay solely with her, but that she was out of options and decided to panhandle to make ends meet. Ms. Davies said TDP has had quite a few successful cases since she joined in September 2014. In one case, a single ticket with a $325 fine was withdrawn, which is a significant sum when tickets typically range from $65 – $125, and our clients tend to have been convicted on anywhere from 1-20 tickets each
Attendees also discussed a number of problems related to the SSA. One such problem is the public perception of “sanitization of space.” This problem could be addressed through public education with the aim of overcoming the NIMBY appeal. Ms. Davies suggested that one way to tackle this perception is to move out of the discourse of “sanitizing” space to sharing space. One such initiative is the “Nobody is Illegal” movement. This initiative raises awareness of the causes of homelessness and poverty. It also aims to make people question their biases. Another aim is to advocate for housing initiatives and more mental health funding. Ideas discussed include reaching out to a liberal MP and educating police as part of a wider education outreach on the subject.
Excessive and zealous policing is another area of concern. For instance, clients report that some officers lecture them to get a job as they hand them a ticket. Members of the conference agreed that police need to be educated in this regard.
Some attendees have suggested that too many resources are invested in this kind of policing. For instance as of 2014, 30% of property taxes are allotted to police, whereas fire and garbage collection receive something around 3% and 1-2%, respectively, of city funding collected through property taxes. However, attendees also areed that police officers can be great allies and on the need to work with other partners.
Another topic of concern was the requirement of proof of residence to vote in the October 2015 federal election. Mounting fines mean access to official documents, such as driver’s licences, are suspended until the fine is paid. If one is living at a shelter and has no documentation knowing where and when to vote and proving their identity at the polls become significant obstacles to exercising their democratic rights.