New study reveals how being homeless in Quebec is fast becoming a crime

·4 min read

A new study highlights on the disproportionate impacts of public health violation tickets across Quebec – especially on Indigenous people.

The report looked at 31,845 tickets issued by police in Quebec for public health violations and found that there were higher numbers of fines in some areas of Montreal, as well as entire regions, such as Abitibi-Témiscamingue.

The report found an average of 326.5 tickets issued per 100,000 people in Quebec overall, while Indigenous individuals were handed 377 tickets proportionally. That number rises in certain regions, from 479 in Abitibi-Témiscamingue, and skyrocketing to 1,173 in the upscale Montreal borough of Outrement.

The authors noted that 84% of all tickets were issued to homeless individuals who gave a shelter as their address, though others who gave a friend or relative’s address would be left out of those statistics. Although Indigenous people are less than 1% of the population of Montreal, they make up 4% of the homeless population.

The report was issued May 18 by La Ligue des droits et libertés, le Réseau d’aide aux personnes seules et itinérantes de Montréal, la Clinique Droits Devant, la Clinique Droit de cité and COCQ-SIDA. A 2021 report from the same groups looked at the larger trend of the increasing criminalization of homelessness. The authors show that, in 1994, there were just over 1,000 tickets issued to homeless people in Montreal, but by 2018, that number grew by over 800%, to 8,493 tickets.

A similar study from 2016 in Val-d’Or showed that 76% of the 3,087 tickets issued there between 2012 and 2015 went to Indigenous people, though they represented less than 10% of the population.

Marie-Ève Sylvestre, the Dean of the Faculty of Law (Civil Law Section) at the University of Ottawa and one of the authors of the three reports, said that the criminalization of homelessness has been going on for years, and “it’s wrong on so many levels”.

“To punish and issue statements of offense against individuals trying to survive or use public spaces for reasons that are a direct result of racism, discrimination, colonialism, bad social policies, trauma – it seems unfair and discriminatory and perpetuating harms that those policies caused in the first place. It’s also very inefficient,” Sylvestre said, noting that homelessness has not decreased as a result of these enforcement measures.

“Secondly, the fact they are issued a ticket means they have to pay a fine. In many cases, they don’t have the means to pay a fine,” she added. “It perpetuates this cycle of exclusion and poverty. It’s not helping the issues of why people are using the streets in the first place.”

Sylvestre said the data showed what people were receiving tickets for, like consuming alcohol in public spaces, being intoxicated in public, or entering the metro without paying.

“All these offences are banal and linked to survival in public spaces, to poverty, to necessity,” she emphasized. “It’s not because they are posing dangerous threats.”

The 2021 report issued 12 recommendations to decrease the criminalization of homelessness, including a moratorium on tickets for homeless people, and to collect ethnic/racial data so police forces can track if their actions are affecting certain groups. In 2020, the Montreal police announced changes to its street-check policies after it was shown they were four to five times more likely to perform street checks on Indigenous and Black people compared to the general population.

Sylvestre said that instead of resources going towards police officers, they could be directed towards social workers and health services, while looking to support people who need housing, food, health services, and warmth. She pointed to the housing crisis in Montreal, noting that many people face evictions and end up living in public spaces without any alternative.

The Montreal police declined a request for an interview but issued a statement. “Since the start of the pandemic our police officers have always been instructed to exercise judgment, discernment, compassion and tolerance. Moreover, in certain circumstances, officers themselves have transported homeless people to emergency shelters,” it stated.

“In the specific case of the Covid-19 curfew, our operating philosophy was based on collaboration with our partners and intervention in accompaniment mode – referral to community resources. For each direct intervention, police officers had to assess the circumstances and manage on a case-by-case basis (mental health, referral to community resources, etc.), because each situation is unique and must be dealt within its context,” the statement continued.

“As a police organization, it is essential to question the multiple impacts of an officer’s intervention on a homeless person. We did not want to unnecessarily [criminalize] homeless people with regard to the curfew, especially if there was no availability in the emergency shelters. Only extreme cases were to lead to the issuance of statements of offence: violence, flagrant lack of consideration for health measures or non-collaboration with specialized resources,” the police force stated.

Benjamin Powless, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Nation

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