New Ontario legal aid funds won’t help homeless fight tickets

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This year Legal Aid Ontario will dole out $4.2 million to help vulnerable citizens gain access to legal resources. But that money likely won’t help people like Mike Viera.

That’s because the Toronto legal clinic that is helping Viera, formerly homeless, fight more than $7,000 in tickets, isn’t included in the new LAO funding, which was announced late last week.

Ontario legal clinics focused on helping low-income, aboriginal, immigrant and disabled communities will all get some dough, but Fair Change Community Services — a Toronto clinic that helps the homeless beat tickets — was excluded.

Recently, the Toronto Star reported on the clinic and its battle to absolve Viera’s outstanding tickets for offences that included loitering, trespassing, and sleeping in parks.

While he’s no longer living on the streets, Viera takes constant calls from collection agencies and his outstanding debt means he can’t get a driver’s licence, making it harder to get a job to pay those bills.

 It’s a legacy of the province’s 1999 Safe Streets Act, which was originally meant to combat “aggressive panhandling” by squeegee kids, but has taken plenty of heat for essentially criminalizing homelessness. Even former provincial attorney-general Michael Bryant has said it’s a “rotten law” that should be repealed.

“Let’s stop arresting the poor for being poor,” he said.

Even as squeegeeing and panhandling have declined, the number of tickets has ballooned. A study from York University’s Observatory on Homelessness also found that 80 per cent of those tickets were given for “non-aggressive” panhandling, like soliciting passing pedestrians.

Aside from how it punishes the disadvantaged, there’s another crucial concern: what sense does it make to fine poor people?

The average ticket is just $60, but surprise: homeless people can’t afford to pay them. So their costs go to collection agencies and the harassment continues.

Meanwhile, there’s the time and expense of doling out tickets. That same York U study found that Toronto alone spent $1 million in police hours, issuing a collective $4 million in fines. That sounds like a return on your investment, except approximately 99 per cent of tickets to homeless people are never paid.

Ontario’s not alone in holding onto this law. British Columbia passed its own very similar Safe Streets Act in 2004, and it’s also been panned as illogical, ineffective, and unfair.

And yet, it appears these laws aren’t going anywhere since court challenges have upheld anti-panhandling laws. In 2007, the Ontario Court of Appeal denied an appeal in R. v. Banks, in which 11 homeless men lobbied to overturn the province’s Safe Streets Act because it infringed on their freedom of expression, liberty and security, and equality rights as guaranteed in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

Prior to that, in 2002, the B.C. Supreme Court rejected a similar Charter challenge against a Vancouver “squeegee-kid” law in Federated Anti-Poverty Groups of BC v. Vancouver.

It would appear to be a waste of time and money to defend laws that already waste a lot of time and money.

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