12/15/2014 09:55 EST | Updated 02/14/2015 05:59 EST

Safe Streets Act: Michael Bryant Wants Ontario To Scrap Panhandling Law

TORONTO - Former attorney general Michael Bryant is calling on the Ontario government to repeal the "rotten law" that targets panhandlers and so-called squeegee kids.

Bryant is among a coalition of individuals and organizations urging his former Liberal government colleagues to take the now 15-year-old Safe Streets Act off the books.

During his four years as Ontario's attorney general, Bryant says he "failed" by not repealing the act when he had the chance.

"I am accountable and responsible for it," he said at a news conference Monday. "I should have, period. I have no excuses."

Bryant was joined by fellow members of the coalition, who note that the wealthy, middle-class people or charities are not issued tickets when they fundraise on the streets.

"We, the Coalition to Repeal the Safe Streets Act, call on the Ontario government and the legislature to repeal this rotten law," Bryant said. "Let's stop criminalizing the poor for being poor."

Stephen Gaetz, the director of the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness, said the act is the outcome of a "moral panic" about homeless people living on the streets in the 1990s.

"That act, as I say, was a response to public fears and prejudice and it wasn't based on policy and evidence," he said.

Gaetz, a professor at York University, conducted research and found that between 2000 and 2010 incidents of panhandling and squeegeeing "declined dramatically" in Toronto. His research showed that 29 per cent of street youth surveyed reported panhandling and squeegeeing as their main source of income in 1999, a figure that dropped below three per cent 10 years later.

But the number of tickets being issued rose from 780 in 2000, to 3,000 five years later, to 15,000 tickets in Toronto alone in 2010, he found.

"So this becomes part of a policing practice that again is meant to intimidate and push homeless people off the streets," he said.

The majority of people ticketed can't — and don't — pay the fines, Gaetz said, estimating that the cumulative fines have placed $4 million in debt upon people in extreme poverty in Toronto.

Mary Birdsell of Justice for Children and Youth called the law "punitive and degrading."

"There are countless paths to a better society," she said. "There's no doubt that that's true, but the Safe Streets Act is not one of them. Put simply it is mean, it is bullying and it is beneath us."

The coalition has asked for a meeting with current Attorney General Madeleine Meilleur, Bryant said.

Premier Kathleen Wynne said Meilleur would work to meet quickly with the group, but added her real concern was addressing homelessness, not scrapping the Safe Streets Act.

"Whether they're being given a ticket or not, for me, is beside the point," said Wynne. "What is critical is that we work to get them into housing so that they can get on with their lives. That's the point of having a poverty reduction strategy, and that's why homelessness is our top priority."

A constitutional challenge to the law failed in 2007 when the Supreme Court of Canada denied leave to appeal to 11 homeless men convicted under the act in 2001 for washing windshields or asking Toronto drivers for money.

Both a trial judge and the provincial Appeal Court agreed the law infringed on individual charter rights, but said the infringement was justified in the interests of public safety.

The Liberals opposed the legislation when it was brought in by Mike Harris's former Conservative government as part of a package of law-and-order measures.

The law banned people from stopping cars and offering to wash their windshields, and made illegal "aggressive panhandling" and disposing of refuse like syringes and used condoms in public places. Bus stops, taxi stands, automated tellers, parking lots and people getting in and out of a vehicle were also deemed off-limits for panhandlers.

Progressive Conservative Michael Harris — no relation to the former premier — said he believes Ontarians want to see the law remain on the books.

"I think folks are happy that squeegee kids are off Toronto streets for the most part, aggressive panhandling that is," Harris said. "You still see it out there. I don't think cops or police in Toronto are out there making it a priority to ticket left and right, but if they need the tools they have them and I believe it should be intact."

The New Democrats are supporting the call to repeal the Safe Streets Act.

"It's a failed and costly experiment, and a bad piece of legislation that serves to do nothing but criminalize the poor and puts barriers in front of smaller charities who take to the streets to drum up donations — especially this time of year," said New Democrat MPP Jagmeet Singh.

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