WATCH: Alan Carter explains why former the former attorney general is saying he should have repealed the Safe Streets Act when he was in office.
TORONTO – More homeless people than ever are being ticketed for panhandling in Toronto under Ontario’s Safe Streets Act. Advocates say it’s time to repeal the law altogether.
Toronto Police issued 15,000 tickets under the act in 2010 – an increase of roughly 1900 per cent than 2000, says York University professor Stephen Gaetz.
Gaetz, along with former Attorney General Michael Bryant and Mary Birdsell of Justice for Children and Youth, called on the Ontario government to repeal the act at a press conference in Queen’s Park Monday morning.
“We don’t need public shaming, fines or punitive debt,” Birdsell said. “We don’t need to fear people who are so poor they beg or panhandle.”
Toronto police have issued more than 67,000 tickets since 2000, said Gaetz, who estimates the value of tickets given to homeless people amounts to roughly $4 million in debt and another $1 million in the amount of time police spend writing the tickets. Most tickets don’t get paid but they do serve as a barrier to escaping poverty, Gaetz said.
“First, they accumulate many. It isn’t like you get one of these,” he said. “Once they get housed, often two weeks after they get housed, they get a knock on the door from a collections agency saying ‘You owe $4,800.’ They can’t get a credit rating and that becomes a burden and a barrier to them moving forward.”
Bryant, who could have repealed the law as attorney general, admitted he should have done so when he had a chance.
“I failed. I am accountable and responsible for it. … I have no excuses.”
He added that repealing the act would be “consistent” with the Wynne government’s anti-poverty and mental health strategy.
Premier Kathleen Wynne didn’t say Monday when speaking to reporters whether she would move to repeal the law but said Ontario Attorney General Medelaine Meilleur will meet with the advocates and she is “open to that discussion.”
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“What is the most shameful to me is that in this rich province, in this rich country that we live that we still have people who can’t find enough to eat and can’t find a place to sleep,” she said. “I want to help those people who are on the street, to get off the street, to get into a living situation where they are more protected.”
Then-Attorney General Jim Flaherty introduced the law under the Mike Harris government in 1999. It’s been credited with dramatically reducing the number of “squeegee kids” in Toronto. At the time, it was welcomed by Toronto drivers. Still, Gaetz said, it’s time to repeal the act as there’s less panhandling now but far more tickets.
“They’re issuing these tickets in greater numbers than ever without the same number of people even engaging in those activities. That suggests and reinforces the idea that all along this was about harassing people who are homeless, who are poor and visibly poor in public spaces.”
With files from The Canadian Press