Montreal·First Person

Poverty is not a crime — so why is Montreal still ticketing the unhoused?

The problem isn't just bad law enforcement and profiling, writes law student Emily Knox. It's bad laws, too.

Municipal leaders should instead focus on providing secure, dignified housing

A person standing on the edge of Cabot Square in Montreal speaks with police on April 10, 2020. Emily Knox, a law student who provides legal information to those experiencing homelessness, writes that fining people without stable housing does more harm than good. (Ivanoh Demers/Radio-Canada)

This First Person article is the experience of Emily Knox, a law student in Montreal. For more information about CBC's First Person stories, please see the FAQ.

Last winter, I was part of a group of McGill University law students who launched a legal information clinic that operates next to Cabot Square in Montreal's central Shaughnessy Village neighbourhood.

The legal clinic, led by law students under the supervision of lawyers, seeks to improve access to justice for people experiencing homelessness in our city.

Each week, whether it is -40 C or a sweltering heat wave, we set up outdoors and offer support to unhoused community members navigating the justice system.

People will often share their stories with us and, through their experiences, we have noticed an ongoing problem: unhoused Montrealers are being ticketed at alarming rates.

Most people who stop by the legal clinic have been ticketed for violating municipal bylaws, which govern how we use the public spaces which we all have the right to access. I often hear about hefty fines being issued to unhoused residents for minor infractions like loitering, being in a park after it's closed, consuming alcohol on public property or sleeping on benches. They are penalized for things that many of us do in the privacy of our own homes: sleeping, consuming alcohol and urinating.

A tent is seen at Place du Canada in Montreal on April 10, 2020. (Ivanoh Demers/Radio-Canada)

Sleeping on a park bench can get you a fine of $60 — and up to $1,000 if it's a subsequent offence — fines that are given to people with no stable housing, who often have nowhere else to sleep. The scale of this issue is staggering: researchers found earlier this year that nearly 40 per cent of all tickets for bylaw infractions in Montreal are issued to people experiencing homelessness, despite accounting for less than one per cent of the population.

At the legal information clinic, we see the human effects of ticketing and punitive bylaws that stigmatize unhoused Montrealers. This pandemic has highlighted the many systemic barriers this community faces. But it has also shown that where there is political will, governments can make significant legislative and administrative changes at warp speed.

The lack of action on this front tells me that people experiencing homelessness are not being prioritized.

The unhoused community members I meet depend on public spaces like parks, Metro stations and sidewalks. They are resilient and resourceful, and they gather on public property as a way to keep themselves safe and to have a community.

However, occupying public spaces exposes them to heightened police surveillance. A pile of tickets later, and suddenly they are caught up in a justice system that is difficult to navigate, even for a law student.

Many people I encounter have unpaid fines amounting to thousands of dollars. One man we met at the legal clinic is burdened with $40,000 of debt to the city. And with First Nations, Inuit and Métis people disproportionately ticketed, this amounts to yet another form of displacement of Indigenous peoples.

I also hear a lot of people express mistrust of the police because they feel they are criminalized for being poor and unhoused. Without the means to pay for these fines, they are further marginalized. I've seen people who visit day shelters for a warm meal being demanded to pay the city whatever little money they have.

WATCH | How your vote can impact the way Montreal manages homelessness:

Before the Ballot: How your vote can impact how Montreal manages homelessness

10 months ago
Duration 3:15
How does the city deal with the issue? And what are some proposed ideas by the parties?

The Quebec Human Rights Commission and other organizations have been asking the city to get rid of bylaws that punish people for being unhoused. The commission called over-ticketing in Montreal a systemic problem of social profiling. Montreal has taken some steps, like introducing a moratorium on sending people to prison for unpaid tickets and recommending its police be sensitive to the realities of life on the street. And yet, the number of tickets given to people with no stable housing has increased exponentially since the mid-1990s.

As a law student, I can't yet give legal advice or represent people in court, and bylaw infractions don't qualify for legal aid. But the justice system can't solve poverty; we can't ticket our way out of homelessness. We need systemic change. Bylaws are enacted by the municipality, and our elected leaders at city hall have the power to amend and remove bylaws that penalize unhoused Montrealers.

The problem isn't just bad law enforcement and profiling. It's bad laws that are harming marginalized community members. Instead of maintaining punitive bylaws, municipal leaders must do more to provide secure, dignified housing for all residents. This would be far more effective at maintaining public safety than ticketing people with no stable housing.

We are calling for more compassion and solidarity within our city. Everyone is deserving of dignity, respect and equal access to public spaces. It's time we stop this pointless ticketing.

As Montrealers prepare to vote on Nov. 7 for who will run this city, I'm urging our elected officials to make this issue a priority and rescind bylaws that penalize homelessness, because poverty is not a crime.

A group of law students who give legal information to homeless people in Montreal's downtown say they'd like to see change on how homeless Montrealers are ticketed for bylaw infractions. We spoke with one of the students.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Emily Knox is a McGill University law student who co-founded a legal information clinic that supports unhoused Montrealers navigate the justice system.

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