How bad laws lead to harmful enforcement

Five Toronto Transit Commission special constables have been charged with attempting to obstruct justice and fabricating evidence for writing false tickets to homeless people, a shocking situation both in substance and because it is so rare for officers to be charged criminally in relation to their duties.

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Using the law as a catalyst for positive social change, Pivot Legal Society works to improve the lives of marginalized communities.

The problem, however, isn't only the professionalism of a few constables, nor is it simply a question of management wanting to pad their statistics for budgetary reasons. The problem is bad laws.

Unlike those of us with homes and adequate incomes, people living in poverty are targeted and ticketed for activities necessary to their survival: sleeping in a park, vending goods on the sidewalk, or even setting up a basic shelter such as a tarp or a box in order to survive the night. Municipal bylaws prohibiting those activities stand in the way of people's safety and survival. Ontario's Safe Streets Act, for example, stops people from earning an income relatively safely by prohibiting squeegeeing and targeting people for panhandling.

These laws criminalize people for being poor.

The TTC case lays bare the prejudice faced by people living in poverty and is one of many examples of how bad laws lead to bad enforcement. Whether it is a homeless man in Montreal accumulating more than $100,000 in fines or city staff using chicken manure to clear a homeless camp in British Columbia, the laws underlying these actions are largely the same

Using laws to target people living in homelessness and poverty increases displacement, pushing people into more remote locations and putting their safety at risk while decreasing their access to police protection and making it harder for service providers to find an assist people. The health impacts are clear: homelessness and poverty lead to poor health and early death. Using the law to further marginalize this group of people achieves nothing and increases the harms they already experience.

Fines and possible arrests and charges make it far more difficult for people to exit homelessness and, given people's inability to pay tickets and the failure of ticketing to deter people from continuing in these acts of basic necessity, one has to wonder what possible societal benefit is being derived here.

These laws also perpetuate prejudice against people living in homelessness and poverty, dehumanizing and reducing them to a problem to be regulated. The result is an ugly NIMBYism that poisons and divides our communities, making solutions to our housing crisis nearly impossible to implement.

The United Nations has twice this year alone called for an end to laws that criminalize homelessness, recommending specifically that Canada repeal laws that "penalize homeless persons for finding solutions necessary for their survival and well-being." It is time for our cities and provinces to repeal the laws that perpetuate this type of enforcement and cause these significant individual and societal harms.

As a country we need to be working towards an end to homelessness and poverty, not ticketing those whom our system has most egregiously failed.

This column was originally published in Huffington Post Canada.

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