The Toronto Police Services Board has rejected a call to soften the force's crackdown on panhandlers.
At a board meeting at police headquarters on Friday, anti-poverty activists said that the thousands of tickets given out under the Ontario Safe Streets Act every year have effectively made it illegal to be homeless on Toronto's streets.
"People panhandle because they need to survive," Greg Cook, a street outreach worker and representative of Safer Streets For All, said in a deputation to the board. "The only space to do that is public space because many of them don't have housing. I'd recommend that rather than punishing people for being poor, we work to improve the safety net."
Cook says that in the course of his work he's seen tickets given to people who were not panhandling but who police believed were intoxicated blocking the sidewalk. He believes the tickets are intended to force impoverished people out of public spaces.
The number of panhandling tickets police give out has increased sharply in recent years, up from 710 in 2000 to more than 15,000 in 2010. Cook said that those slapped with the fines (which average $60) rarely pay because they can't afford to, often resulting in court appearances that waste scarce police resources. Safer Streets for All says that police spent $190,000 issuing the tickets last year, and only $34,980 worth of fines were paid.
In a written submission, Cook asked the board to reduce by half the number of tickets being given out, and to direct Chief Bill Blair to work with social agencies to develop protocols for police interactions with vulnerable people.
But Chief Blair defended the ticket regime, arguing that it doesn't make an offense out of being homeless, but rather targets threatening or dangerous behaviour. As examples he cited panhandlers cornering people at bus stops or ATMs, or wandering into traffic to ask drivers for money.
"That can be problematic, and cause fear for the ordinary person, and cause people to feel unsafe in public space," he said.
"So those have been made offences under the provincial legislation... and those are the offences we're enforcing. A person just sitting, passively panhandling on the street is committing no offence."
Blair said a rise in complaints from the public was the driving factor behind skyrocketing numbers of tickets.
Councillor Michael Thompson, vice-chair of the board, said it was in the public interest for police to get tough on begging. He recounted his own run-in with a man who asked him for money outside City Hall, which the councillor claimed ended with him being "assaulted."
"I was trying to get to a meeting to do a speech, and in fact I had no money at that time," Thompson said. "In fact I was assaulted with a rubber ball. Having walked away from the person, he took out a rubber ball and threw it and it hit me in my back. And it stung."
Thompson stressed that many homeless people may be facing psychological difficulties and are in need of help, but that shouldn't stop police from protecting public safety. He added that the city already spends millions on mental health and homelessness programs.
Councillor Frances Nunziata, who also sits on the board, showed little sympathy for those who solicit change from passersby.
"A lot of them are not homeless," she told the board. The councillor recalled receiving complaints from residents about people panhandling near a ramp to the 401 highway and then "running across the street and getting a case of beer."
"It is, in some cases, a way of making money," she said.
After a brief discussion, the board voted to receive Cook's submission for information but take no further action.
In an interview afterward, Cook said he was disappointed by the decision and shocked at what he called the "stereotyping" of homeless people by some members of the board.
He argued that with government cuts to affordable housing and shelter programs making it harder to find homes, and the panhandling clampdown making it more difficult to live on the street, Toronto's vulnerable are being squeezed on both ends.
"Because of the recession, there's definitely more people on the street," he said. "People are doing it because they don't have a better option. If you've ever tried to sit down on the sidewalk and ask for money, your dignity is gone. It's about survival."