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‘Might as well be $5 million’: advocates say police fines oppress homeless population

MONTREAL (CITYNEWS) – Montreal homeless advocates say the city’s police department needs to rethink its approach of issuing tickets to the homeless.

Tickets handed out to the homeless – sometimes for small infractions – can quickly turn into hundreds of dollars of debt. Advocates say this further oppresses the community’s most vulnerable.

“You’re giving someone a $15 ticket they’re going to have to work or do two or three months in jail for, how does that help anybody?” said John Tessier, interventions coordinator at the Open Door shelter. “Efforts would be better aimed at trying to help instead of trying to penalize.

“Already when you’re on the street, it can be very demoralizing, depressing. Once you see a $15 ticket turn into a $476 debt, you feel hopeless. You think, ‘oh well whatever.’ Four hundred dollars might as well be $5 million for a person on the street.”

Police officers move homeless people away from a city street corner in Montreal, Saturday, August 22, 2020, as the COVID-19 pandemic continues in Canada and around the world. THE CANADIAN PRESS IMAGES/Graham Hughes

That’s what happened to Oscar Cano, a homeless man who visits the Open Door shelter in Montreal’s Le Plateau-Mont-Royal neighbourhood. Cano has accumulated a series of small fines – for offences like drinking in public – that have added up over time.

“I go to this place, they see me drinking beer, they go around and stop and give me a ticket,” said Cano, who owes the city nearly $500. “I don’t feel good.

“I don’t feel like a normal person, you know.”

Lawyer Lauren Dahan says police officers aren’t mandated to inquire whether the person receiving the ticket has the money to pay the fine.

“In the criminal code, when a judge gives a sentence of a fine, they have the obligation to look into the person’s capacity to pay,” said Dahan. “A police officer has no such obligation. They see an infraction, they give a ticket, and what ensues ensues.”

The Villeray–Saint-Michel–Parc-Extension borough where Cano has been frequently ticketed says it’s working with police to help the homeless.

“We’re trying to give them assistance as opposed to oppressing them,” said Parc-Extension city councillor Mary Deros. “It is important. … We don’t have all the expertise. We are meeting on a biweekly basis and see what more we can do for them.”

In a statement, Montreal police said “patrollers understand and are sensitive to the various facets of homelessness vulnerability. However, for various reasons, certain behaviors result in the application of municipal by-laws.”