The Sunday Magazine

The city where it's against the law to be poor

In Toronto, the richest city in Canada, it is against the law to be poor. To be precise, it is against the law if you are poor and try to do something about it, like beg for money....
In Toronto, the richest city in Canada, it is against the law to be poor. To be precise, it is against the law if you are poor and try to do something about it, like beg for money.Most of the perpetrators are homeless people who sit on street corners, cover themselves with old blankets and newspapers and panhandle.
Interesting word, panhandle. It refers to a narrow strip of land jutting out from a larger land mass. In Dickensian times it came to mean the action of a poor person, his arm outstretched, sometimes holding a beggar's pan, asking for money.
The law, called the Safe Streets Act, also applies to squeegee kids who sometimes aggressively try to wash a car window stopped at a red light and beg for money. In truth they are a nuisance. In fact, all of the visible poor and homeless are a nuisance. How dare that guy sleeping on cardboard in front of a downtown church force me to step around him -- or over him.
They clutter up the core areas of our major cities. They force us to feel guilty if we pass by without throwing a quarter into their paper cup. They make us look bad in the eyes of tourists from Ames, Iowa or Dijon, France or Reading, England. One young woman I used to see on the streets said she made a not bad living from begging. If it weren't for the drugs, she would have been all right. Haven't seen her for months. Dead, maybe.
Anyway, the poor were such a pain that 15 years ago, the Harris government passed the law making public poverty a crime. Fines under the act ranged from $60 to $500. Of course the poor being poor and a nuisance, 99 per cent of the fines went unpaid.
The costs to having Toronto cops enforce the Safe Streets Act ran to more than $1 million a year. The entire enterprise, besides being unfair, was an utter waste of public time and public money.
So said Michael Bryant at year's end. Mr. Bryant is a former Ontario Attorney General. He called for the elimination of the safe streets act, saying he is ashamed he did not kill the law when he had the power to do so.
"Let's stop arresting people for being poor," he said. "It (the law) criminalizes homelessness," adding: "It has been 15 years of  ticketing people in poverty."
The current government is looking at repeal, but the law is popular in some quarters. A writer for that esteemed intellectual journal The Toronto Sun, said that repeal would mean swarms of squeegee kids would descend on our streets like pine beetles, attacking our cars and terrifying drivers. The city's new mayor, John Tory, thinks the current law has worked quite well.
Incidentally, this past year I discovered a way to assuage my conscience about handing out nickels and dimes to panhandlers. I hand out socks instead. You can buy half a dozen of them at a dollar store for a couple of bucks. Later, producer Frank Faulk brings us a documentary about giving socks to homeless people. You'll hear the voices of the homeless talking about the importance to them of warm socks in the winter.

It is not much, not as good as repealing our poor laws, but it's something.


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.