Features  Policing poverty

Filmmaker and ex-squeegee kid portrays the criminalization of Montreal’s homeless

Eric Denis, better known as Roach, used to earn a living cleaning windshields. Now he’s in the process of creating the documentary Les Tickets, which will reveal many of the realities of Montreal’s streets and the effects of harsh punishments for minor infractions.

Denis, who began living on the streets at 14 years old, was recruited by documentary filmmaker Daniel Cross to depict his life as a squeegee person. Shooting footage for S.P.I.T. (Squeegee Punks in Traffic), Denis explains he “traded his syringe for his camera” and pinpoints this as his redeeming moment. Since S.P.I.T., which depicted the City’s zero-tolerance stance against squeegee kids, he’s completed two additional films, also charged with a rebellious spirit: Roachtrip and Punk the Vote.

Living on the street comes with a whole host of dangers – health issues, violence, exposure. The police pose an additional threat to this already disenfranchised population. Officers ticket the homeless for minor offenses, and these offenses often accumulate. Because many can’t pay the fines, they can end up in jail.

The lack of adequate housing has meant that homelessness has become increasingly visible in Canadian cities. In turn, a desire to keep poverty out of sight means efforts that indirectly criminalize it. Public poverty has always been heavily subject to the rule of law, and the Quebec Human Rights Commission has pointed to visible signs of poverty and marginalization as a basis for social profiling.

“We justify the criminalization of the homeless people on the basis that they constitute a disruptive presence in the city,” says Celine Bellot, a professor at the Université de Montréal and a member of the Collectif de recherche sur l’itinérance, la pauvreté et l’exclusion sociale, a research collective focused on issues related to homelessness. “The presence of marginalized people disturbs other users of public spaces, and so it’s believed that action must be taken to eject these people from public spaces.”

The Montreal police’s tough stance against incivilities has had direct negative consequences on the homeless. Last November, the Quebec Human Rights Commission, in a report entitled “La judiciarisation des personnes itinérantes à Montréal: un profilage social,” called for the district of Ville-Marie to repeal two municipal regulations that unfairly target homeless people. The first municipal bylaw, which closed 15 parks and public spaces at night, has meant that homeless people have had to choose between leaving downtown or defying the law in order to find a place to sleep. The report also called for the repeal of the bylaw that forbids the entry of dogs into Émile-Gamelin Park and Viger Square. These bylaws have had direct consequences on homeless persons’ ability to access essential services: Viger Square is just blocks away from two shelters.

Homeless women tend to be targeted for fines particularly on the basis of infractions related to solicitation. When it comes to policing the disruptive behaviour of homeless women, the focus is largely on sex work, and on issues that are particular to sex workers. “We use their strategy for survival as a means to repress the presence of women in public spaces,” says Bellot.

Bellot found that between 1994 and 2005, ticketing increased at a rate of 696 per cent for public transit infractions and 320 per cent for municipal infractions. Today in Montreal, ticketing is no longer increasing at the rate it once was, notes Bellot. However, she adds, Montreal still tickets more than other Canadian cities.

Denis illustrates the pettiness of common infractions: “Sleeping on a bench is grounds for a $140 ticket, because you’re taking up more than two spaces on a bench.” The homeless have a different relationship with public space. Denis explains that treating these spaces as their home leads directly to criminalization. “When you want to drink a beer, you go into your living room and have a beer – their living room is the park, where it’s illegal to drink.”

The commission found that uneven policing that targets the homeless resulted in the excessive use of courts to deal with the marginalized population. Although the rationale behind a zero-tolerance policy when it comes to minor infractions is that it will reduce the number of serious criminal acts, studies conclude that there is no relationship between the number of incivilities and the level of crime within a neighbourhood. The commission drew statistics from studies conducted by Bellot.

Piper Huggins, borough councillor for the district of Plateau-Mont-Royal, states that “it’s almost easier, possibly, for a government to invest in coercive measures, because you see results immediately – because you’re basically chasing people off the territory – than investing in the more complicated aspects, which is actually confronting the issue itself and making sure that people on the street have an alternative.”

Bellot explains that Montreal criminalizes the homeless in more implicit ways than other Canadian cities, which adopt legislation that targets certain behaviours. “In Montreal, we often use existing regulations, but interpret these regulations in a more restrictive way, and enforce them more severely,” she says. “The Quebec Commission for Human Rights has shown [that] we use legislation that applies to everybody and apply it disproportionately to homeless people.”

Bellot’s studies demonstrate that homeless people who get arrested are unable to enter into a dialogue with the justice system, and are engaged in an administrative process that they do not understand. The Clinique Droits Devant, a mobile judicial accompaniment clinic that serves Montreal’s marginalized communities, reports cases in which homeless people have fallen asleep at the doors of homeless shelters, only to wake up with a notice of infraction in their pockets for public drunkenness, never having had contact with the police officer involved.

While some measures are taken to better equip homeless persons who enter the justice system – such as designated prosecutors and community resources – Bellot says these efforts are disproportionate to the number of individuals who are ticketed. She estimates these efforts aid 50 to 100 homeless people while 4,000 to 5,000 fines are given out each year.

“There are people who are homeless, who live in public spaces, and there are others who are in the process of leaving the streets but are trapped by fines that they receive while homeless. When these people leave prison, there are no resources available to help them find housing. That means they find themselves, once again, in the streets,” says Bellot. “It’s a vicious circle.”

Roach agrees that crime enforcement is counterproductive and notes additional dangers of incarcerating homeless individuals. “Ticketing [the homeless] and putting them in jail [is] putting them in the hands of real criminals,” he explains. “I’m talking from experience. I was in jail for tickets, and I was solicited to sell cocaine by the Hell’s Angels.”

In December, the British Columbia Court of Appeal upheld the right for homeless people to set up temporary shelters in public parks. In B.C., the legal question of the right to squat in public spaces came to the fore in October 2005, when the Supreme Court of British Columbia struck down the City of Victoria’s bylaw against setting up tents or other structures in parks.

Many believe that the ruling in Victoria has set a precedent for the use of public space in municipalities across Canada. David Johnston, who has lived in the streets of Victoria and who was a defendant in the case, says that the case provoked many Canadians, because it legally affirmed that people have the right to live in public spaces without paying.

Despite this legal victory, Chris Aung-Thwin, coordinator of Homeless Nation, points out the City’s resistant attitude toward the ruling. “[Municipalities] have no desire to work toward a solution,” says Aung-Thwin.

“Municipalities will have to take into account the demand for the existence of temporary shelters,” says Huggins. “It’s a question of bylaws attacking a symptom that is not part of the underlying problem.”

Bellot explains that the problems associated with people in public places can be met with solutions that work toward cohabitation. “We can offer private spaces to these people, like respite centres, social housing, places where they can be present without having their presence contested,” she says.

The amount of money allotted to social housing is absurdly low, according to Huggins. The total annual budget for social issues in the borough is $64,000 while 3,000 families are on the waiting list for housing. The redistribution formula for funds set aside to combat poverty and social exclusion penalizes the Plateau, because it is calculated partly on the basis of concentration of poverty. Even though poverty is a big problem in the Plateau, it is not concentrated in a particular region, says Huggins.

“It’s a complex problem, because it involves so many levels of government and it needs the backing of society,” says Huggins. “If people have homeless people staying in the park across the street from where they live, they’re going to ask the government to evict these people from the park. They’re not going to ask for a raise in taxes so that the government can reinvest these funds in social housing.”

Denis registers the frustrations of trying to elicit change through the municipal government. “We’ve been trying for years. We were almost there with the Politique en itinérance,” he says, citing a report undertaken in 2008 and 2009, interested in respecting the rights and improving the living conditions of the homeless population. “Unfortunately, Charest won’t listen to us.”

“We need to bring [the issue] to film festivals and to the general population,” says Denis. “The next step is to bring this film to the community and tell them, look, we need to talk to our politicians. We need change now.”

The eighth annual Homelessness Marathon will broadcast live from the streets of Montreal, and several other locations across Canada, on Tuesday, February 23, starting at sunset and running all night long until sunrise on Wednesday, February 24. Campus and community radio CKUT 90.3 FM will host the hours between 2 a.m. and 7 a.m. Topics will include HIV on the streets, policing poverty, and literacy.