Toronto Programs

'We shouldn't be ticketing homeless, unwell people,' former attorney general says

Ticketing homeless people who are addicts simply criminalizes poverty and mental illness, former Ontario Attorney General Michael Bryant said on Metro Morning Wednesday.

Last week, a judge threw out $65K in fines for a formerly homeless man

Michael Bryant brought a pail full of tickets to a press conference in 2014, calling on the Ontario government to abolish the Safe Streets Act. (CBC)

Ticketing homeless people who are addicts simply criminalizes poverty and mental illness, former Ontario Attorney General Michael Bryant said on Metro Morning Wednesday. 

"It's the definition of kicking somebody when they're down," said Bryant, a long-time advocate of repealing the Ontario Safe Streets Act, which prohibits things like panhandling. 

What happened to formerly homeless man, Gerry Williams, is an example of that, Bryant said. Last week, an Osgoode Hall law student helped Williams wipe out $65,000 in tickets stemming from offences like trespassing or public intoxication. 

"It's a powerful message and powerful indictment from an intelligent and articulate man who, obviously, for part or a lot of his life has been unwell," said Bryant. 

Williams, who has struggled with addiction issues, was homeless for about nine years.  Fair Change Community Services Legal Clinic defended Williams against roughly 450 unpaid tickets, its student director Daniel Ciarabellini told Metro Morning earlier this week.

Gerry Williams, a formerly homeless man with addiction issues, faced more than $65,000 worth of tickets for things like panhandling, trespassing and liquor violations. (Jonathan Castell/CBC)

Bryant has previously said that during his four years as Ontario's attorney general, he "failed" by not repealing the Ontario Safe Streets Act, when he had the chance. 

"The assumption in the government is that people imagine that this is an effective or positive law and getting rid of it would cause a backlash," Bryant said Wednesday. 

But he said he is hopeful that the "absurdity" of a homeless, mentally ill man facing $65,000 in fines will motivate the provincial government to repeal the act, which has been in place for about 17 years. 

Daniel Ciarabellini of the Fair Change Community Services Legal Clinic helped defend Williams against his 450 tickets. (CBC)

"Do we want a law that only tickets people who are addicts, alcoholics or mentally ill?" he said. "Those are the only people who get ticketed. People like you or me never, ever get those tickets."

Ciarabellini said Williams's plight isn't unusual, and many homeless people in Toronto are facing hundreds of dollars of fines. He said there are many different laws that are applied against homeless people, but no one thinks about their ability to pay.

"I think police officers who give out the tickets are simply doing their jobs," he said. "It's a problem with the law...These fines just don't get paid."

With files from Metro Morning