03/02/2016 22:34 EST | Updated 03/03/2017 00:12 EST

Homeless man's $110K in fines sign of 'systemic' issue with police, advocate says

Advocates are highlighting what they say is an unjust police practice as the reason behind why one homeless Montrealer racked up $110,000 in tickets.

"It was shocking," said Émilie Guimond-Bélanger, a social worker at the Droits Devant legal clinic.

"We've never seen someone with so many tickets," she said.

When Guimond-Bélanger pulled out the homeless man's file, it was 30 centimetres thick.

The man, in his 50s, had been living in the subway for a few years.

When he approached Droits Devant for help, Guimond-Bélanger said his file showed repeated fines for sleeping in the subway, begging for money, and drinking in public — "things that someone who doesn't have a home has to do in the public space," she said.

"He had received around 500 of them [tickets]. I could see that most of the time he would receive many in the same week, sometimes by the same officers as well."

A 'systemic' issue

Though the $110,000 in accumulated fines is higher than usual, Guimond-Bélanger said this case is indicative of a larger issue.

"It's very common, to a point where I would say it's a systematic experience for homeless people."

She said some homeless people get tickets every week — sometimes every day.

She estimated that Droits Devant deals with one to two similar cases daily with people owing an average of $10,000.

As to why police continually hand out tickets to homeless people, Guimond-Bélanger pointed to the Montreal police department's ticket quota system.

"You give them tickets and they don't really have a voice to speak it out," she said, " and nobody knows how many they receive."

However, Montreal police said tickets given to homeless people have nothing to do with meeting quotas since they are municipal infractions —  quotas are based solely on road infractions.

More than a fine

Guimond-Bélanger said the debt still haunts homeless people even after they've managed to get themselves off the street.

"When they don't pay for their tickets, there's a bailiff coming to their door."

"It's a huge amount of money that would stress out anyone who has that as a burden. So you can just imagine how it's difficult for a person to then think about rehabilitation in society when they have such a heavy debt," she said, "it affects them a lot."

"Some of them feel like there are good citizens in society — and then there's them."

Daniel Boucher knows that burden all too well — he was ticketed several times as a homeless man.

"Every day you wake up you tell yourself 'I have $10,000 in debt.' It's really heavy to bear," he said. 

A prosecutor eventually cleared his debt because Boucher successfully completed rehab. That same amnesty could be a possibility for the man who currently faces over $100,000 in fines.

Solving Montreal's homelessness

According to a 2012 study, Montreal's homeless owed the city $15 million in outstanding fines.

Guimond-Bélanger is unconvinced that those fines do anything to help solve the root problems of homelessness.

"All this money could be used in social housing, which helps them get out of the streets rather than continually repressing them," she said.

For their part,the Movement to End Homeless in Montreal (MMFIM) — a coalition that includes the City of Montreal and police — recently launched a five-year plan to get 2,000 homeless people off the street, partly by providing more affordable housing. 

At the project's launch in December of last year, mayor Denis Coderre said the city was also creating a new full-time advocate for the homeless, which would "bring back dignity between society and [homeless people]."