Activist courts challenges

By Ritu Lamba

Jane Scharf’s wrinkled but captivating blue eyes and weathered appearance hint at her struggle. For the past three months, this 50-year-old woman has been proving the strength of her convictions by giving up everything for the sake of the homeless.

On this September afternoon, Scharf sits cross-legged outside the Rideau Centre. She is talking on a cell phone while writing in a notebook. Papers are scattered around her next to a makeshift sign that reads: “Homeless Action Strike Day 73.” She updates the sign every day.

Walking into her sidewalk office feels like an intrusion. It may be public property, but it’s her temporary home.

Scharf has voluntarily given up her real home to protest Ontario’s Safe Streets Act and Mental Health Act. She let the lease on her Alta Vista apartment expire at the end of August and has been living on the street since July 1.

Scharf wants these Acts abolished.

The Safe Streets Act, which was passed in November 1999 and focuses on aggressive and dangerous panhandling is unnecessary, she says, because there was already sufficient legislation dealing with these activities.

“Since [the government] enacted this, they use it in such a way as to prohibit all squeegee, and all panhandling, and all busking. This act is used to discourage any activity that a homeless person might engage in for survival,” she says.

Scharf opposes the Mental Health Act because she says it gives outreach workers and police officers too much power to remove homeless people from the street. “To get the help they need,” she says, quoting sarcastically from Premier Ernie Eves’s Web site.

“In reality, what you have is an extreme violation of human rights. It involves a subjective decision without any checks and balances.”

“These acts aren’t needed,” Scharf says. “They are a way for the government to sweep the streets. They don’t want us to see the fallout of social cutbacks.”

Unlike most of the homeless, Scharf has a cell phone and a car. This doesn’t shield her from harsh street conditions. She spends her nights on a thin foam mat and eats at a local food bank where she often has to fight to get the food she needs to control her diabetes.

On the street, Scharf faces violence. She got a black eye from two drugged-up teenage girls who got upset after Scharf insisted they clean up after themselves – an agreement they and others living in the same area made to the city.

Scharf also recalls how her hair was set on fire while she was sleeping. She thinks it was Nazi skinheads.

Surprisingly, when Scharf is asked what some of her worst moments on the street have been, it’s not these moments she describes.

She talks about two recent incidents she describes as police harassment. In one case, a police officer kicked her twice at 4 a.m., telling her she couldn’t sleep there. He wouldn’t give her his name.

So, why is she doing this?

Scharf hesitates to say anything too self-flattering. “I just find these actions fall into my lap and create a moral duty that I can’t ignore,” she replies. Later, she elaborates: “There’s so much injustice in society, and I can’t tolerate it. I need to take on some of it to feel peaceful inside.”

Scharf believes so much in her cause that she is willing to go to jail for it. During the first two months of her protest, she and about 25 others were sheltering under the entrance ramp to Colonel By Drive beside the Rideau Centre. There, on Aug. 29, she was arrested and charged with mischief. Ottawa police Sgt. Richard Dugal was quoted as saying that she was arrested for interfering with city workers who were trying to clean the area following public complaints about sanitation. Scharf insists that she was arrested for refusing to relinquish her protest sign.

Scharf spent a night in jail and was released the next day with the condition that she could not be within 100 metres of the overpass. She is appealing this and says if the judge doesn’t change his decision, she will return to the bridge anyway.

“If [jail] is what it takes, so be it. I’m not going to forfeit my right to protest.”

The lengths this woman will go to to raise awareness about something that doesn’t directly affect her might make some people think she’s crazy.

Scharf’s friend John Dunn, 32, laughingly says: “You have to be crazy to do something like this.” Joking aside, Dunn, who was living with Scharf when she gave up her home and also is now homeless, thinks Scharf is doing this because she genuinely cares.

“She doesn’t do it for money or for attention. She just gets a gut feeling…and decides that something needs to be changed because it’s not right.”

Dunn isn’t officially part of Scharf’s protest but he supports it. He feels confident that something positive will come of it.

“I don’t necessarily think the laws will change, but it will be successful to some degree. It will raise awareness and increase support for homeless people. Jane has also taught the kids on the street a lot,” he says.

Dunn says Scharf has been an inspiration to him. Scharf’s daughter feels the same.

Kayla Welch, 12, the younger of two daughters, describes her mom as brave and says she inspired her to get involved in social activism very early on.

Kayla lives with her father, Scharf’s former partner, and goes to school during the day like most kids. Unlike most kids, she gets involved when she sees the need for change. She protested against her school board with her mom when it was not satisfying her hearing impairment needs. She also spent part of her summer helping her mom get donations under the bridge.

When asked what she wants the public to know about her mom, Kayla replies, “She’s got a lot to give.”

That can’t be disputed. Scharf plans to continue her protest on the street for a year. She feels optimistic about the outcome. “I believe that if you undertake to correct an injustice, the means will present themselves,” she says.

She has received more support than opposition, but she wants more than that. She wants everyone in Ontario involved and she will not be satisfied until these laws are abolished.

After a year on the street, if she hasn’t reached her goal, she will try another action, but she isn’t sure what that will be yet.

Her unwillingness to give up is not surprising since she is used to getting results.

Last June, with help and support, Scharf was able to stop the use of child restraints as normal procedure in group homes.

She led a 42-day hunger strike after she was fired from her job at a group home in February 2002 for reporting the misuse of restraints on children. She also faced jail for withholding photocopies of restraint reports and log books against a court order.

Scharf is proud of this but her greatest accomplishment is getting Kayla the help she needed at school.

She attributes her success to all the experience she had in previous jobs, including as a daycare worker. She says she was always socially active in her jobs, protesting working conditions for example, and that has given her knowledge.

Scharf admits that she sees herself doing this kind of thing for the rest of her life.

But when asked what social issue will occupy her next, she says, smiling, “I hope I’ll get a little break.”