Criminalization means making particular behaviours or decisions illegal. The criminalization of poverty means making the behaviours and decisions associated with poverty illegal. Poverty becomes criminalized when governments create laws that disproportionately punish homeless or street-involved persons.

According to the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness, At least 235,000 people in Canada experience homelessness every year, with 35,000 Canadians being homeless on a given night.

In Ontario, the following statutes tend to disproportionately target homeless and street-involved individuals:

  • National Capital Commission Traffic and Property Regulations: e.g., open alcohol or possession of liquor in contravention of the Regulations
  • Environmental Protect Act: e.g., littering
  • Trespass to Property Act: e.g., failure to leave property that is not your own
  • Liquor License Act: e.g., public intoxication
  • Safe Streets Act: e.g., panhandling

The majority of Ontarians would not be fined under these laws, but persons experiencing homelessness or who are otherwise street-involved tend to be fined disproportionately.

The criminalization of poverty is tied closely to the increased regulation of public spaces. As governments pass laws regulating behaviour in public spaces, homeless persons with nowhere else to go are regulated out of these spaces. For example, when municipal governments regulate the times when individuals may be in public parks, individuals in those parks outside of the regulated times may be asked to leave or they may be fined if they fail to do so.

When a person does not have access to stable housing, they must rely on public spaces to conduct many every-day activities, such as sleeping, washing, eating, and drinking. When public spaces are over-regulated, individuals who are homeless or street-involved are targeted by police and by-law officers and punished for engaging in these types of activities.

The United Nations Special Rapporteur for Adequate Housing, Leilani Farha, said the following about the criminalization of poverty in her report to the United Nations Human Rights Council in 2015: “Such laws are often framed under the guide of public health and safety but, in reality, the aim is to ‘beautify’ an area for the promotion of tourism and business or to increase property values.”

Laws criminalizing poverty can have the effect of perpetuating cycles of poverty. Debts and involvement with the criminal justice system can create barriers when trying to secure jobs or housing. In this way the regulation of activities primarily conducted by impoverished people can perpetuate poverty rather than alleviate it, as they may prevent people from making choices and accessing services that could break the cycle of poverty.

In short, these laws punish some of the most vulnerable members of our community. For these reasons, the TDP advocates for reform of laws that disproportionately target those living in poverty, along with increased funding for affordable housing and support for those experiencing mental health issues and addictions.

Importance of Access to Personal Protective Equipment for Street-Involved People & Broader Issues Impacting Street-Involved People during the Pandemic

Further reading:  

Suzanne Bouclin, “Regulated Out of Existence: A Case Study of Ottawa’s Ticket Defence Program” (2014) 11 Journal of Law and Equality 35-83.

Canadian Observatory on Homelessness, The State of Homelessness in Canada 2016.

John Rook and Samantha Sexsmith, “The Criminalization of Poverty” Crime Prevention: International Perspectives, Issues, and Trends. Edited by John A. Winterdyk. Boca Raton, FL: CRC Press, 2017.

United Nations Report of the Special Rapporteur on adequate housing as a component of the right to an adequate standard of living, and on the right to non-discrimination in this context.

Jeremy Waldron “Homelessness and the Issue of Freedom” University of California L.A. Law Review, vol. 39, 1991-2.