Toronto

'The worst kind of law': Wynne government challenged to scrap law that targets panhandlers

The Fair Change Legal Clinic is challenging the Ontario government to repeal its panhandling legislation that the organization says violates the charter rights of the homeless.

Legal clinic argues that Ontario's Safe Streets Act unfairly hits Ontario's most vulnerable

Gerry Williams racked up over $10,000 in panhandling violations that he could not pay while living on the streets. (Jonathan Castell/CBC)

The Fair Change Legal Clinic is challenging the Ontario government to repeal its panhandling legislation that the organization says violates the charter rights of the homeless. 

 'It hurts only the most vulnerable.' - Joanna Nefs, Fair Change Legal Clinic

If a police officer witnesses a person asking for money and they receive it out of charity, they can be issued a ticket for violating the Safe Streets Act. Joanna Nefs of the legal clinic says the fines imposed on them almost never get paid.

"Taxpayers are still paying for the courtroom, Justice of the Peace, prosecutors and administrative staff to process the tickets," she said. Nefs said the legislation isn't just wasteful, it's oppressive.

"'It's the worst kind of law," Nefs said at Queen's Park while she and a team of lawyers announced their complaint. "It hurts only the most vulnerable." 

Joanna Nefs founded Fair Change Legal Clinic nine years ago and says the Safe Streets Act is wasteful, discriminatory and harmful. (Queens Park Studio)

The Ministry of the Attorney General's office responded to the challenge in an email to CBC Toronto:

"We look forward to working with the Ontario Human Rights Commissioner, anti-poverty advocates and all justice partners to address poverty in Ontario," the email says.

"With respect to the challenge to the Act, Ontario is currently reviewing the notice of application. As this matter is currently before the court, it would be inappropriate to comment further."

Fining people who can't pay

Why do we have to harass them with the Safe Streets Act to make their lives even worse?-Peter Rosenthal, lawyer

Gerry Williams owed well over $10,000 throughout his nine years living on the streets. He said he would never have been able to pay them.

"My tickets prevented me from obtaining a driver's licence, quality housing, credit or even a good job eventually," he said.

Already consumed by alcoholism and PTSD from a difficult home life, Williams says the tickets smothered him and gave him little opportunity to get out of the darkest period of his life. The Fair Change Legal Clinic helped him appeal his fines, and he has paid for them through community service instead. 

"The law isn't fair and it should be repealed," Williams said at Queens Park on Thursday. 

Infringing on people's rights versus public safety

A constitutional challenge to the law failed in 2007 when the Supreme Court of Canada denied 11 homeless men leave to appeal their convictions under the act for washing windshields or asking Toronto drivers for money.

Both a trial judge and the provincial Appeal Court agreed the law infringed on individual charter rights, but said the infringement was justified in the interests of public safety.

"It's absurd isn't it?" lawyer Peter Rosenthal asked Thursday. 

Rosenthal is arguing the 17-year-old law infringes on an individual's rights of freedom of expression, equality, right to life, liberty and security of the person. He said only "aggressive" panhandling should be prohibited. 

"It's a fact of life. There are impoverished people who need to panhandle," he said. "Why do we have to harass them with the Safe Streets Act to make their lives even worse?" 

The Fair Change Legal Clinic will prepare affidavits from people negatively affected by the legislation over the summer. The team wants a hearing before summer 2018. 

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