Crowded shelter or $880 fine? Homeless face ‘impossible’ coronavirus choice

WATCH: In Quebec, fines for failing to respect social distancing bylaws range from $1,000 to $6,000. In Montreal, advocates for the city's most vulnerable claim police are unfairly targeting the homeless population. As Anne Leclair reports, one Montreal lawyer is now stepping up to fight.

On Monday, a brother and sister watched as the makeshift shelters they were living in were dismantled and their community ordered to disperse.

The siblings had been part of a group who’d set up camp on private property in Hamilton, Ont., before the owner ultimately decided he wanted them out.

Now, they were trying to figure out where to sleep.

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As an inner-city doctor working with the Hamilton Social Medicine Response Team, which caters to people who can’t easily access healthcare in traditional ways, many of Dr. Jill Wiwcharuk’s clients do not have homes — this brother and sister included.

Where to next? They had two dogs and each other, making it hard to go to a shelter and still stick together. Sticking together was non-negotiable.

“They opted to sleep rough,” Wiwcharuk says, meaning they opted to sleep outside. It was just a question of where.

“In discussing where they were going to go, one of the options was a place that (the brother) had been before at a city park,” she says. “But he said he had received over 15 tickets for having been there in the past.”

That’s thousands of dollars in tickets, most pre-dating the pandemic, for a man who can’t afford them, who has no place to effectively practice physical distancing, and who — should he successfully navigate his way to a life of less precarity — will have a potentially job-blocking black mark on his record due to fines owing.

At the moment, people experiencing homelessness are even more visible, as those with homes hole-up out of sight. And they’ve racked up fines, ranging between $880 and $1,600 each. Precise numbers are hard to come by, but so far, advocates have reported at least dozens of tickets in Toronto and Hamilton, Ont., as well as Montreal, Que.

But the Hamilton brother’s struggle is not unique, nor are the tickets a byproduct limited to the coronavirus pandemic.

Tickets increased 2,000 per cent between 2000 and 2010 in Toronto alone, per a John Howard Society report. For every five tickets the Society reviewed, they found four were for non-aggressive types of solicitation, things like panhandling or squeegeeing for cash.

“People who are homeless are more visible and policed in public spaces, increasing their likelihood of criminal justice interaction,” the report says.

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“What this pandemic is doing is shining a light on many aspects of our healthcare system and social service system that have traditionally had problems,” says Wiwcharuk, including, “this ridiculous practice of ticketing homeless individuals when people are fully aware it’s not going to be paid.”

That’s a point advocates continue to make in virtual meetings with police and city officials and in letters imploring governments to take action to protect some of their most marginalized constituents.

First up? Stop ticketing people who are homeless for congregating in groups bigger than five during the day when they spend their nights toe-to-toe in shelters.

“These fines can be more than two months of income for a person who is homeless living on social assistance and will likely never be paid,” reads an April 20 statement to the City of Hamilton from the Hamilton Community Legal Clinic, the Hamilton Social Medicine Response Team, and Keeping Six, a community-based harm reduction organization.

“The tickets do not act as a deterrent and thus do not advance a public health agenda to flatten the curve.”

***

Tickets “add insult to injury,” says Lisa Nussey, co-coordinator of Keeping Six in Hamilton. “People on the streets are really being left behind in pandemic management.”

Safe havens — Tim Horton’s, McDonald’s, public libraries, mental health and addiction drop-in programs — have all but vanished, she says, closed to help flatten the curve.

So while finding a bathroom to relieve yourself or a sink with soap to wash your hands is most likely a non-issue for those with homes, it’s a pressing and ongoing need for those on the streets who are — like everyone else — doing their best to stay safe and minimize the spread of COVID-19.

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Nussey acknowledges that officials are trying, but there’s still a sense of frustration at the speed: “It’s taken like three weeks to get one set of bathrooms downtown.”

Three times a week, Keeping Six’s outreach team visits people to see how they’re doing. For a while, Nussey says, people seemed to be doing okay, “in fairly good spirits.” She’s proud of the community’s resiliency.

But last week, the report back was a little bleaker: terrible weather, difficulties finding shelter, and the seeming endlessness of coronavirus is a recipe for weariness.

“You’re constantly being told to move on, which was a theme in all our work pre-COVID-19, but now there are even less places to move on to,” she says.

These are people in “impossible” positions who should be accommodated, not ticketed, says Michael Bryant, executive director of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association (CCLA).

“When you hand out tickets this big for what amounts to otherwise benign, harmless behaviour, what you’re doing is you’re putting an undue burden on a vulnerable population,” he says.

The volume of tickets handed out to people with no homes is “really shocking,” says Alexander McClelland, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Ottawa’s criminology department and co-creator of Policing the Pandemic, a mapping project launched in early April to track the ways in which COVID-19 orders are being enforced across the country.

“Why are we not working to provide spaces for those people to stay home? As a society, it’s the wrong approach,” McClelland says. “There are empty buildings, there are empty hotels… Punishing them isn’t going to do anything.”

In some ways, some cities are now — more than a month into the pandemic — beginning to ease up on ticketing people experiencing homelessness.

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Since releasing a statement on April 20 urging officials to focus on meeting people’s basic needs and helping them physical distance rather than ticketing them, Nadine Watson, a staff lawyer with Hamilton Community Legal Clinic, says they haven’t received reports of new tickets.

“Our commitment is to continue monitoring,” Watson says, but she believes following virtual meetings with the municipal government and Hamilton police that they understand “the optics of ticketing individuals who are experiencing homelessness.”

A spokesperson for the Hamilton Police Service says the force is actively engaging in conversations with organizations like the legal clinic and Keeping Six. Officers can use their own discretion when it comes to ticketing people, she says, but “warnings were given prior to issuing tickets.”

The force has issued 34 tickets as of April 28, including for public urination, spitting, and open alcohol. She says none have been specific to physical distancing.

In Toronto, where homeless advocates are suing the city over its handling of the COVID-19 crisis, the city has eased up just a little, announcing April 22 it would no longer ticket people for using public benches.

Benches have been a hot button issue. The Local spoke to a police officer who candidly told a reporter people experiencing homelessness “have nowhere to go” and yet his job is still to enforce the bylaws.

Toronto police are using a “common sense” approach, says spokesperson Meaghan Gray.

“A common sense approach is applied to all areas of our enforcement and is especially the case when dealing with those experiencing homelessness,” she says. “Police officers are exercising discretion and, when possible, referrals are made through Street to Homes 24/7 intake.”

Cécile Arbaud, executive director of Dans La Rue in Montreal, which supports youth experiencing homelessness, doesn’t know if ticketing has eased up there in recent weeks or not. There has, however, been more attention focused on how best to support people who don’t have homes since the ticketing of several youth for hanging around a metro station in a group bigger than five prompted Quebec’s Human Rights and Youth Rights Commission to call out the practice as discriminatory.

“Homeless people cannot isolate themselves in their homes since they do not have one,” Philippe-André Tessier, president of the commission, said in a statement calling on police to recognize “the disproportionate impact of the application of these measures on already vulnerable people.”

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Since early April, Arbaud says more efforts have been made to find shelter for people who need it. A new night shelter opened last week and another this week, she says, but a pattern seems to be emerging.

A handful of people arrive the first night seeking shelter, but then by day two it’s full and people are again left searching for safe space.

“There’s a lot of anxiety,” she says, particularly as many of Dans La Rue’s support services have had to be suspended because of COVID-19.

“What’s going to happen when this is over?”

***

This is a crisis within a crisis, says Nussey. She isn’t sure enough people realize that.

“The opioid crisis that was ravaging this country didn’t just all of a sudden stop because COVID-19 came along,” she says. If anything, she says, it’s exacerbated because fewer people have easy naloxone access on the street right now.

“Overdose, COVID-19, housing… they’re all sort of winding into this perfect storm.”

To an extent, we see some of that storm already beginning to rage.

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Just look at Singapore, says Maya Roy, CEO of the YWCA in Canada. Singapore was touted as a how-to for effectively containing COVID-19, until it wasn’t. The reason for the surge? Officials were said to have underestimated the vulnerability of the migrant workers housed in cramped facilities.

“Shelters today are basically tomorrow’s long-term care outbreak,” Roy says. It’s already happening among Toronto’s homeless community, where confirmed cases went from 30 to 135 in 10 days.

The situation is so stark that for the first time, humanitarian aid organization Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) is operating within Canada, assisting people experiencing homelessness in Toronto.

MSF Canada is helping organize Toronto’s first COVID-19 “recovery site,” a 400-bed social support project aimed at treating members of the city’s homeless population who have contracted the novel coronavirus.

“This aligned action reflects the severity of COVID-19, its profound impact on homelessness in Toronto and the urgent need to mount a massive response beyond ICHA’s current capacity,” ICHA medical director Dr. Andrew Bond said in a statement April 13.

But without addressing the underlying issues of homelessness, Bryant from the CCLA says people are forced to choose between an expensive ticket or face the threat of infection at crowded shelters.

“You can either go outside and risk getting a ticket, but probably be able to socially distance yourself such that you’re safer,” he says, “or go inside to a shelter where you’re toe-to-toe, nose-to-nose with everybody and put yourself at grave public health risk.

“We can’t ask people in this country to make that choice.”

It is revealing, Roy says, “A pandemic really shows us where our society was already broken.”

And any solutions we want to work, need to foreground the voices of the people impacted, says Nussey — borrowing the “nothing about us, without us” mantra.

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After all, “if you have a house and a car and running water, it might be difficult for you to understand why one set of toilets at the corner of York and Bay is not sufficient,” she says.

“If you have people at the table who can tell you about those things, who can illuminate your blindspots and give you insight into what solutions might actually work, then everybody’s time is better used, everybody’s money is better used, and we come up with solutions that really work.”

— with files from The Canadian Press

This is one of several stories looking at how police are enforcing public health orders across Canada. If you or someone you know has been impacted and would like to share your story, please reach out to jane.gerster@globalnews.ca or andrew.russell@globalnews.ca.

© 2020 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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