By Carolyn Shimmin
Two years after the Safe Streets Act was passed, anti-poverty groups are still fighting for change.
Fifty activists took to the streets of downtown Ottawa Nov. 15 to protest the Safe Streets Act. The act was passed by the Mike Harris government, making it illegal to squeegee or aggressively panhandle.
“We’re here to stop the war on the poor,” says Andrea Schmidt, who came from Montreal to support the Toronto activist group Common Front, a subgroup of the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty (OCAP). The protest was organized by the Ottawa division of the Ontario Coalition Against the Tories (OCAT)
The crowd was a mixture of young and old, some homeless or living in poverty; others activists wanting to get the word out. The group met by the War Memorial on Elgin Street to listen to various speakers on the issue of poverty in Canada. The activists then stood on the corner of Rideau Street and Colonel By Drive panhandling or trying to squeegee cars stopped at red lights. There were 10 police officers in the surrounding area to supervise and hand out $70 fines to anyone trying to squeegee.
“It’s pretty peaceful, but the reason the act was written is because 90 per cent of people don’t want people coming up to their cars,” says Ottawa Police Const. Jaimie Dunlop. “I’m just doing my job, I’m not allowed to make up the laws or change them, I’m just here to enforce them.”
After one warning, protesters could be arrested, but only two fines were handed out and no one was charged.
A man in a wheelchair by the name of “Turtle” says he has been panhandling for 10 years and has been harassed by police officers and storeowners who say they lose money because he is in front of their stores.
“We all need to be loved,” says Turtle. “It affects your mind, body and spirituality being out on the streets and asking for money and people being afraid of you. I’m in a …wheelchair so I can’t work at McDonald’s for minimum wage, so I’m sorry I can’t…flip your burgers for you.”
P.J. Lilley, an OCAP street organizer, says in Toronto she has witnessed homeless people ending up in jail because they were living in an area where developers wanted to build a condominium and golf course. As well, she says that those in poverty can’t pay the squeegee and panhandling fines that can escalate up to $1,000, and they are thrown into jail.
“Jails have become the warehouse for the poor,” says Lilley. “We’ve done a Charter challenge saying that the act violates constitutional rights, and the judge agreed but said that citizen’s concerns override those rights.”
Lilley says the protest isn’t a solution to the problem of criminalizing the poor. She says the best way of fighting for the homeless is daily casework action done by the organizations, such as helping those in the housing tribunals.
“These are biased regulations that are specific attacks on people who use the public space to stay alive,” says Murphy. It’s the genocide of what they see as the ‘useless poor.’”
Money raised by the panhandling either went directly to the homeless who raised the money or else was donated to one of the anti-poverty organizations.
Most mototrists refused to have their car windows cleaned.
“The rich want to remain rich and think the poor should remain poor,” says Turtle. “I want change.”