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Homeless youth unfairly ticketed, study claims

File photo of a squeegee kid. MACLEANS/PHILL SNEL

Homeless youth in Toronto are being unfairly ticketed by police despite the decline in panhandling and squeegeeing over the past decade, according to a recent study.

“We aren’t doing what we should around homelessness, we’re not dealing with the source of the problem, we’re dealing with the symptom by criminalizing homelessness,” York University professor and study co-author Stephen Gaetz told The Canadian Press.

His research showed that in 1999, 29 per cent of youth on the street reported their main source of income as panhandling and squeegeeing. This figure has now dropped below three per cent 10 years later.

Eleven years ago, the provincial Safe Streets Act was passed to address aggressive panhandling in Toronto. The tickets being handed out increased exponentially from 710 tickets in 2000, to 15, 244 tickets in 2010.

A review of the tickets being handed out between 2004 and 2010 showed that only about 20 per cent were given for “aggressive solicitation” while 80 per cent were given out for “non aggressive acts of soliciting a captive audience.”

“This suggests the Safe Streets Act is not being used to police a growth in aggressive panhandling and squeegeeing but rather is part of a broader strategy to criminalize homelessness,” the report said.

The potential fines can be up to $500 with an average fee of $60— an amount that would be hard for a homeless youth to pay. Those who cannot pay the fines risk ending up in jail.

About 99 per cent of the tickets went unpaid, the study says. 

“To issue fines to people who live in poverty seems to be a really weird way of dealing with the problem,” said Gaetz.

The act of issuing tickets comes at a significant cost to Toronto police. It was reported to be $189,936 in 2009, and $936,019 over the past 11 years. These costs don’t include the processing of the tickets and the 16,847 hours of police time.

The report recommended ending the Safe Streets Act and using that money to implement more effective strategies to end homelessness. It also suggested that inmates leaving correctional facilities have access to discharge plans and that the Toronto police review practices in dealing with homeless people.

The study was also co-authored by Bill O’Grady of the University of Guelph. It drew in more than 240 interviews with street youth in Toronto in 2009, as well as a review of official statistics on Ontario Safe Streets Act tickets in Toronto over the past 11 years.