What possible motivation could a homeless person have for getting off the streets when the first thing getting an apartment does is make you eligible for jail time for unpaid fines which themselves are an inevitable fact of homeless life? And when does the City actually get it’s act together on the issue and realize that perhaps 50% or more of the homeless in the city have psychiatric issues?
A stupid practice
Man, does the system look foolish when it comes to dealing with homeless people who create nuisances in the métro or Montreal’s streets. It treats them exactly the same way as it would ordinary citizens: It gives them tickets that carry fines.
That makes sense in theory. As Mayor Gérald Tremblay says, “We can’t have two classes of citizens.” Granted, it would be wrong for authorities to give a ticket to Joe Commuter who smokes in the métro but to look the other way at a homeless person doing the same thing. The smoke is just as objectionable regardless of who’s puffing.
But in practice this even-handed approach is nonsense.
An eye-opening study published this week shows that these tickets burden destitute people with fines that they can never pay. Authorities every year issue about 6,000 tickets (about a quarter of the total) to homeless people for breaking city bylaws or Société de transport de Montréal rules. (Most offences are for drinking alcohol in a public space, loitering or doing such things in the métro as sleeping, smoking or not paying a fare.)
The study’s authors, Céline Bellot and Marie-Eve Sylvestre, say the 800 top offenders owe an average of $6,700. The ultimate case is a 51-year-old man whose fines for 347 infractions total $88,742.
The practice is not only stupid and futile but inhumane and counterproductive.
That’s because it can further alienate these citizens from society.
And it can effectively deter them from leaving the streets and reinserting themselves into society. The reason: So long as the debtors have no fixed address and live in shelters or on the street, it’s hard for the justice system to catch up with them, but that changes when they get an apartment. The prospect of going to the courthouse would be enough to daunt many. Those who can’t pay the fine don’t go to jail these days, but they can face hundreds of hours of community service.
Is there a better way? “There’s no single answer,” says Matthew Pearce, who heads one of three shelters for men, the Old Brewery Mission. “There’d have to be a range of responses.”
Much of the misbehaviour is caused not by the people who spend the night in shelters and the day in day centres but, rather, by those who have mental-health problems and who stay away from shelters, “sleeping rough” wherever they can. Pearce notes that two steps on the horizon for 2012 could appeal to this elusive population.
First, the STM might extend to 2 or 3 a.m. a bus service that tours downtown métro stations and brings homeless people to shelters.
Second, the Old Brewery Mission plans to open a mental-health and physical-health clinic next door to its current premises. It also plans a day centre that will be “more than a parking lot” for the homeless; it will be an Internet café with counsellors present. Pearce hopes both innovations will attract some of those who have so far stayed away.
The Bellot-Sylvestre study suggests another idea: Social workers could accompany police and try gentle persuasion on those causing problems.
But what about those who, despite such improvements, might still get tickets? Could authorities adapt the justice system to deal with them more constructively?
The problem is continent-wide, and many jurisdictions’ court systems have departed from the old model – still à la mode in Quebec – of treating all defendants in the same venue, whether they’re mentally healthy or not.
Ontario and several other provinces have opened mental-health courts to afflicted people in the general population (not just the homeless) who are charged with crimes (not just misdemeanours).
But the U.S. is targeting the destitute in particular. San Diego opened North America’s first Homeless Court, as it’s called, in 1989. The judge holds court in the shelter, reducing the defendants’ stress level and making it easy for the judge to hear from shelter staff about the offenders’ commitment to change – a precondition for having one’s case heard. The court offers plea bargaining and alternate sentencing.
Cities elsewhere in California and seven other states have picked up the concept.
Mayor Tremblay does not want two standards of justice, and he’s right so far as the issuance of tickets goes. But, as these other jurisdictions show, there can be room for, uh, reasonable accommodation in the next stage – that is, in how the court deals with people once they get tickets. As Pearce puts it, “If you can’t pay in cash, you can pay by providing evidence that you’re dealing with the behaviour that caused the nuisance in the first place.”