Ticketing panhandlers is a waste of police time.
To talk to Ronnie, you need to know how Ronnie talks. Ronnie (not his real name) is like a TV whose channel is flipped every minute.
What's being said on each channel makes sense, and none of the channels is surprising in itself, though some are certainly fictitious, once you accept that it's a different one every minute or so.
If you grasp how Ronnie talks - not nonsense, just overlapping senses - conversing is easy. But most folks probably aren't inclined to take the time, since apart from the learning curve there's the fact that Ronnie spends his day at a street corner asking for change.
A panhandler's spot may seem random, but is anything but, often worked from for years. And when he or she gets a ticket and a move-along order, it may seem just a reshsuffling, but it can seriously disrupt a deep-seated pattern in an already precarious life.
Between 2004 and 07, tickets handed out by Toronto police for offences under the Safe Streets Act penned by the Harris Tories to proscribe certain behaviours by beggars went from 2,725 to 10,584 (see sidebar).
Are panhandlers getting more aggresive?
Three hundred sixty-eight "solicit in an aggressive manner" tickets were written in 2004, 2,319 last year. Maybe there are just more panhandlers. Certainly, there are more officers - and it seems many have time on their hands.
Is the new focus on community policing inadvertently feeding senseless law enforcement?
In 2006, the province agreed to fund 200 new T.O. officers, and the force moved officers from behind desks to walking the beat; 51 and 52 Division began a "downtown community foot patrol"; SSA tickets took their biggest jump, from 3,609 to 6,057 between 2oo4 and 07.
Seventy-five per cent of those tickets, by the way, go unpaid. To no one's surprise.
An April police report on the tickets states, "It is difficult to conclude if the law has had an impact... [But] data suggests the Service has found the Act to be of some use... and clearly demonstrates that the Service is paying attention to the problem."
In other words, tickets must be working - we're writing so many.
Superintendent Hugh Ferguson of 52 Division was somewhat less circumspect when speaking to the Executive Committee in April about the Streets To Homes program: "The court process does not solve the problem. In fact, I could very easily argue that it only serves to compound it."
He sounds a similar note over the phone: "You can't just keep giving tickets till you're blue in the face," he says. Will we see fewer tickets being given out, then? "That's obviously the hope."
Can he advise his officers to lay off on the tickets? "That'd be me interfering with their authority." Oh.
"Now, if it was a direction from the courts that I had to follow through on, then sure, no problem."
The SSA withstood court challenges in 2001 and 07 but no one has challenged ticketing panhandlers in general.
Matthew Rickwood has panhandled on Huntley Street, where Mt. Pleasant dives under Bloor East, every day for the past three years - except the past month. Tickets have come out of nowhere. In June he received four, including a court summons. I ask what a normal number of tickets in a month is. "Normal is zero," he says. "Normal is no police harassment whatsoever."
One ticket is for aggressive panhandling, which surprises me. Rickwood's big but soft-spoken, and seems good-natured to a fault. I ask how he works. "I sit on a milk crate and I have a hat," he says.
"I don't ask anybody for money. I can be aggressive, but I don't do it when I'm panhandling; that's not how you make money. You've gotta be polite to people to make money."
He puts out his hands and smirks like this is the most obvious statement ever. It is, rather.
Rickwood makes $411 a month in welfare, of which $356 goes to his shared room in a Habitat boarding home, and $6 to cashing his cheque - leaving $50 a month.
Perversely, he made more when he lived in a hostel, thanks to the Street Allowance of $211 a week. But consistent with what I've heard is a typical "housing first" approach, once stable housing was found for him, Rickwood was told to leave the hostel regardless of the quality of the new place.
So here he is, forced into a situation where panhandling is necessary by a program intended to keep him from panhandling. Then punished for it.
The ticket epidemic seems to coincide with the new deployment of officers, and perhaps with the recent political pressure applied by downtown Business Improvement Areas.
Ronnie pans on the west side, and gets a couple of summonses a month. But Rickwood pans on Bloor East. And Dan, whom I met on Bay, gets "almost one a day."
"One cop told me there's no panhandling allowed on Bay any more," he tells me. That's untrue, of course. What we may be seeing is the result of a simple equation: falling crime rates plus a growing police force equals the less appetizing side of so-called "community policing.".
SAFE STREETS ACT CHARGES
SOLICIT NEAR ATM
NEAR TRANSIT STOP
NEAR PARKING LOT
SOLICIT PERSON IN VEHICLE OR ROADWAY
NEAR PUBLIC TRANSIT STOP
NEAR VEHICLE/PARKING LOT
Source: Police Services