No fixed address: Transit fines for Edmonton homeless a 'tax on the most vulnerable'
'It is tough to pay if you have no money,' says Bill Quinn
Bill Quinn fell asleep on a bus and was woken up by transit peace officers after taking the full route from Mill Woods to Abbottsfield and back again.
"[I felt] a little bit scared," Quinn said. "Thought I was going to jail."
Quinn, originally from the Saddle Lake Cree Nation, was homeless for more than 20 years. He couldn't afford the bus fare, and the officer gave him a $275 ticket for fare evasion.
It's a story that Elliott Tanti, communications manager at Boyle Street Community Services, hears from the people the organization serves all the time.
"We know that a lot of tickets are received on transit, particularly in LRT stations, particularly during the coldest times of the year," Tanti said. "[It's] not all that surprising from our standpoint."
According to the latest data from Homeward Trust, there were 1,795 people experiencing homelessness in Edmonton in October — about 0.18 per cent of the city's population.
Last year, 5,879 tickets were issued for fare evasion by ETS. Of those, 376 of them, or 6.4 per cent, were given to people who ETS confirmed have "no fixed address."
The data was initially published by Student Legal Services of Edmonton, which filed a freedom of information request and wrote a report based on figures that suggested a much higher proportion of people with no fixed address being ticketed.
In an emailed statement, ETS disputed those numbers and said they included both people without a fixed address as well as those who did not give one.
ETS provided numbers for fare evasion only; it did not provide figures for other categories at the time of publication.
ETS said it's unable to confirm that those ticketed without an address are experiencing homelessness, but the numbers represent the people who answered "no fixed address."
[It's] not all that surprising from our standpoint.- Elliott Tanti, Boyle Street Community Services
It's also possible there could have been more people experiencing homelessness who were ticketed.
Coun. Aaron Paquette, who has championed accessible and free transit since he was elected to city council in 2017, isn't surprised by the number of people without an address being ticketed.
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"When we find that the most vulnerable people have to go to transit as their source of shelter or their source of reprieve, that tells you that there is something fundamentally wrong with how we're doing things," Paquette said.
Unable to pay fines
Quinn said he wanted to pay off his fine, but couldn't afford it. He picks bottles to make some extra cash, and said it would take him a few days to pay off that $275 fine he received. He also uses transit to get around when he's picking bottles.
"It is tough to pay if you have no money," Quinn said. He was able to do community service in lieu of the fine.
Tanti said that's one of the most common misconceptions about people experiencing homelessness — that they don't want to pay their fines.
"The fact is, a majority of them can't," Tanti said.
But Tanti said sometimes it's hard for the city's most vulnerable to navigate these programs, especially with the challenges unpaid fines can cause.
If they can't pay the fine and unable to do community service in lieu of paying, then a warrant for their arrest can be issued, which Tanti said further complicates the lives of the city's most vulnerable.
ETS said peace officers issue tickets based on a variety of factors, and "will only issue a ticket as a last resort, after all other educational and support options have been exhausted."
But what bothers Paquette is the high cost of the fines.
Paquette, who has also advocated for lowering fines to be on par with parking tickets, said many people who live in poverty aren't able to afford them.
"Anything that would help them get ahead now has to go back into the city system, paying a fine, because they're poor, which is absolutely ridiculous.
"There is a better way."
'Level the playing field'
Quinn said he understands the enforcement of transit fines, but said they should be lower.
Those fines, which Paquette calls "a tax on the most vulnerable," need to be greatly reduced or even eliminated, he said.
It's why he continues to push for universal free transit.
"This is one of our best tools to reduce congestion, to increase equity, to get people out of homelessness and out of poverty, and to level the playing field so that we all do better," he said.
- An earlier version of this story said people experiencing homelessness in Edmonton were getting transit tickets at a rate 35 times higher than other transit users. That was incorrect.Dec 02, 2019 1:53 PM MT