POLITICS

Questions and answers on violence against homeless people in Canada

04/26/2015 09:00 EDT | Updated 07/27/2015 09:59 EDT
Question: What can police and governments do?

Answer: Stephen Gaetz, a professor at York University's faculty of education and a researcher on homelessness, says Canada is approaching the problem in "a backward way."

"We ticket the homeless. We move them on," he says. "And what it does is push the homeless away from police."

He says co-ordinated efforts by provincial health, justice and community services departments are needed to address the problem of homelessness, with the key aim of providing safe, low-income housing.

Advocates have long been pushing for an approach known as "Housing First," where the homeless are offered some choice in having their own place to stay, along with access to support services.

In the past, the homeless have had to earn their way into better housing, from shelters through to affordable housing units, by first accepting support and treatment.

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Question: For people who are facing mental illness, what helps?

Answer: Ian Burton, a 30-year-old who says he was attacked while homeless in Halifax, says often the key first step is improved emergency medical treatment, where emergency room personnel recognize a mental health issue in a homeless person and assist the patient to seek longer term treatments.

"That would be the first step out, and you can look at housing arrangements after that," he said.

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Question: Would tougher penalties help deter people from harming the homeless?

Answer: Barb Perry, who lectures on the topic of hate crime at the University of Ontario Institute of Technology, said existing Canadian law allows judges to consider if a crime is committed with hateful intent. If so, they can impose a more serious penalty.

However, she said the law is seldom invoked and there isn't broad awareness of it among courts or prosecutors.

Like Gaetz, she said she's doubtful increasing prosecutions in this area would do more than send a symbolic message.

"Help people find a place to live," she says.