The Ottawa Police have had a heavy presence this summer.
I see them patrolling the streets, walking down Bank or Elgin in pairs, or biking through the streets. You and I probably feel pretty good seeing them out and about during this bustling season. Does it make you feel safer? I like knowing someone is close by. I have a deep respect for individuals who go into policing, it is a tough and scary business. Our communities need to have trained people committed to protecting the vulnerable. Yet, sometimes we create laws that seem to do the opposite. Sometimes, from lack of understanding we create laws built for ourselves but not for vulnerable individuals.
When I am walking down the street, since joining OIM, I see a little more than just the hustle and bustle I would normally be aware of. I see faces who are blending into the walls and door ways, people I used to ignore or walk quickly by. I have even had the opportunity to befriend and connect with some of these men and women, and see their interactions with passerbys and the officers who are on patrol. Since, these are often the people that the officers are keeping an eye out for. Ottawa is a tourist destination as well as a large city, and the community struggles with the percent of its population experiencing homelessness. One of these officer’s responsibilities is to issue tickets to individuals ‘soliciting’ or ‘loitering’.
A good idea in theory, right? Ottawa is home to people struggling to make ends meet, to find work, to find affordable housing, to curb their addictions, to get healthy or get their medication under control. Some of these individuals have found themselves on the street, often with little money, and ,any consider pan-handling their daily work. Often public opinion is not in favour of the man or woman sitting cross-legged outside of the store, and every community wants to see their politicians and helping professionals ‘dealing’ with the problem. Now, I am making no moral judgement on whether soliciting money is OK or not, instead I have a story from a street-friend to share.
I used to stay with a bunch of guys who lived under the Laurier Bridge; they lived there for years. They would pan-handle everyday downtown, and they got tickets regularly. Whenever the cops asked one of us for our address we would say “Laurier Bridge,” so that’s what they always had to write on the ticket.
To issue a ticket a police officer needs your name and address. Now, I don’t suppose if you refuse to pay your ticket the City of Ottawa will be sending the mailman down under Laurier Bridge to deliver a notice. And, though many of our street-friends do work to see their tickets paid-off it is often hard to imagine the importance of that ticket when you don’t have housing, or a good sleeping bag, or a decent pair of shoes. And, if the tickets keep piling-up the likelihood of them getting paid gets much smaller.
The law we refer to when discussing pan-handling is Safe Streets Act of Ontario (1999). This acts has some very good intentions, to protect the public from coercion, but in reality it also allows cities to visibly ‘manage’ its disenfranchised population. Many of us feel safer seeing the police on the streets, but it is not the same for everyone. I have seen first-hand the look of disappointment when a street-friend is caught-up talking to a street outreach worker and doesn’t see the cop coming up behind them. This law, though well-intended is vague, it does very little to deal with the root issues of homelessness, and instead attacks the ‘symptoms’ to very little effect.
Someone with no money will struggle trying to understand how their community expects them to pay a fine. Someone with no address may not flinch when asked what their home address is, but it is another reminder that the system we live in was not built with them in mind. This is what I find most frustrating about my work with OIM; trying to work within a system of governance that is disconnected with some of its neediest citizens. I don’t think the Ottawa Police, the men and women walking the beat, are in the wrong. In fact, they are great men and women trying to do good work to the best of their abilities. It is irony that they are asked to enforce a system of policies and laws that don’t fit with the individuals they meet each day. I want safe streets as much as the next person, but I want safer streets for all of us. I am not sure what the solution is right now, but I know what I see isn’t working, and if you need more proof then you can ask any of our street-friends whether they feel like the system was build with them in mind.
What we need is to re-imagine these laws, keeping every party in mind, asking what works for ‘us’ not for ‘some’.
Written by Selina, OIM Staff.