It’s Wrong That Homeless People Are Being Buried in Fines
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It’s Wrong That Homeless People Are Being Buried in Fines

This defies logic.

On Monday, an Ontario judge dropped $65,000 in fines against a man who had been homeless for years, the Toronto Star reports.

Gerry Williams was ticketed 430 times when he lived on Toronto streets, for non-criminal offences such as getting drunk in a subway station, jaywalking, carrying open liquor, loitering, littering, and trespassing.

He told the Star he struggled with alcoholism; as the fines racked up, they buried him, leaving him with little hope he could take even small steps to better his situation, improving his credit score or getting a driver’s licence.

Last year, Williams visited the Fair Change legal clinic, and a lawyer took on his case.

“Pretty much every homeless person you pass on the street owes the city money, and in the case of Gerry Williams, he (owed almost) $70,000,” said Osgoode Hall law student Dan Ciarabellini.

The fines have been dropped, but Williams must serve two years’ probation and complete 156 hours of community service, a sentence for “soliciting in an aggressive manner”—panhandling.

It’s an offence under the Safe Streets Act, a piece of provincial legislation enacted in 1999 by the Mike Harris government.

For years, there have been calls for the law to be repealed.

“Banning aggressive panhandling was never the solution,” a 2014 Toronto Star op-ed argued. “The acts of aggression it targeted were already illegal. What it did was penalize people for being poor.”

Fining homeless people for panhandling defies logic. It’s counterproductive. We are telling people who are already struggling, who already are living in poverty, they must literally pay for it.

It’s comparable to something that happens with some regularity in our criminal justice system: slapping an alcohol-abstention clause on someone who’s addicted to alcohol.

In these cases, when someone is charged with an alcohol-fuelled criminal offence, it’s common for a judge to impose a requirement that the person abstain from alcohol when they’re released from jail. When you’re an alcoholic, though, this sets you up to fail. If the rule is broken, the person can be charged another offence—breaching their conditions.

The same goes for fining the homeless. We should be providing supports and services to society’s vulnerable people, not moving progress and success even further out of reach.