Life in the Public Eye: Interactions Between Homeless Youth and the Police

“For people who are homeless, young or old, there are not necessarily many (if any) safe, private places to seek refuge in, or simply go home to. The streets become the ‘living room’ of homeless youth; spaces where they relax, reflect, meet friends and engage in recreation activities. Many of these activities are not that unusual for teenagers, such as hanging out in groups, drinking, and/or using illegal drugs or engaging in loud, boisterous behavior. The difference is that for domiciled youth, these things are more likely to occur in private” (O’Grady, Gaetz & Buccieri, 2011, p.60).

I have been working at Horizons for Youth (HFY) since June as the Development Assistant, assisting with fundraising, outreach and communications. On my first day of work at HFY, my supervisor Stacey took me on a tour around the shelter. Afterwards, we walked into the common area towards two residents, both black males. One of the boys looked up at us, two white blonde women standing in front of him, and said “hey Stacey, hey Stacey’s twin,” leading the other to jokingly snap back, “don’t do that. You’re treating them like the police treat us.”

While I do not remember much else from that day or even which one of the youth at HFY made the joke, I continued to think about this comment about profiling. In the coming weeks, I began interviewing the residents about how homeless young people interact differently with the police and the criminal justice system than those with stable housing. During the school year, I am a student at Osgoode Hall Law School and I was interested in learning first-hand from HFY residents about their experiences with this system.

When it comes to privacy, leading scholars on homelessness in Canada prepared a report, which states that homeless youth have more interactions with the police than other young people for two interrelated reasons. The first reason is that because these individuals lack private spaces, criminal activity is more noticeable. The second is that, because of this visibility, all homeless youth are stigmatized and profiled by the police as being potentially criminally involved, thus receiving more attention whether committing a crime or not (O’Grady, Gaetz & Buccieri, 2011, p. 11). According to a recent survey, 78% of homeless youth reported having some kind of encounter with the police, with 59.8% of those being ‘stop and searches’, 36.8% being asked to ‘move on’, 33% receiving tickets for minor offences and 44% being arrested (O’Grady, Gaetz & Buccieri, 2011, p.11).

When asked about privacy concerns, James* a 23-year-old resident at HFY who struggles with mental health and addictions challenges explained that his current experience of homelessness is extremely stressful because of his fear of the police. Although he had been using drugs and alcohol as a coping mechanism to deal with past trauma even when he lived at home, he now uses substances in public spaces, such as city parks. He commented, “I do feel more vulnerable to police detention than people living at home because I don’t have a permanent address.”

Similarly on the topic of privacy and substance use, another resident named Ryan* described a situation where he was drinking a beer outside of a grocery store with his friends because he had no other place to go. As he was in a public space, a police officer saw the group and gave Ryan a ticket. In reaction to getting the fine, Ryan said that he threw the ticket back at the officer, who replied that he could be charged with assault for that and brought him to the ground. While no charges were laid, Ryan was arrested and spent the night in a holding cell. Although the police officer’s perception of the situation was likely very different from Ryan’s, and it is important to state that I only heard Ryan’s perspective, his experience poses the questions of whether this encounter would have occurred if he had stable housing and whether the officer applied the law neutrally or treated Ryan differently because he assumed Ryan was an at-risk youth. Ryan acknowledges that he was in violation of the law, but he feels that he is often cited for offences that the average person would not be.

Speaking to the Homeless Hub report’s argument that, because of their visibility, all homeless youth experience more interactions with police, numerous residents at HFY described being stopped by the police on multiple occasions when they were abiding by the law. HFY resident Ahsan* noted that he has been stopped by the police numerous times when simply walking down the street and doing nothing wrong. He described one incident where he was stopped and questioned by a police officer because he was holding an LCBO bag and the officer wanted to check if any alcohol was open, even though he was not drinking and showed no signs of intoxication. Like Ryan’s experience, the frequency of contact that Ahsan has with the police begs the question of whether another person, for instance a white blonde female like myself, would have been stopped for the same thing. Rather, it is likely that occupying low-income areas, being a male of colour and/or fitting the stereotypical appearance of a homeless person lead Ahsan to receive a disproportionate amount of attention from the police.

Policing is an important part of keeping our communities safe; however, street-involved youth often have negative perceptions of the police. Homeless youth are more likely to be victims of crime and often feel as though the police do not protect them. In addition, the criminal justice system can perpetuate cycles of homelessness for youth because of both fines and incarceration. Getting ticketed for offences such as loitering, public drinking and intoxication can leave homeless individuals with large debts, making becoming financially stable more difficult. Incarceration can be even more destabilizing, often leading youth to lose their current jobs and housing, which hinders their ability to secure employment or find an apartment in the future.

At HFY, staff members aim to provide residents with enough support and information to minimize their negative interactions with the criminal justice system. If a youth arrives at our agency and is involved in an on-going criminal case, staff members will ensure that they are connected with legal aid, document upcoming court dates to ensure that the youth does not miss any, as well as accompany the resident to court if necessary. With issues of privacy, profiling and bias against homeless youth in mind, our ultimate objective is to promote positive interactions between youth and the police and keep our residents safe.

With regards to the broader relationship between the criminal justice system and homeless youth, strategies should be adopted that discontinue the criminalization of homeless individuals. Strategies recommended by the aforementioned report that speak directly to this issue include that police officers should stop using the practice of ticketing as a way of encouraging homeless people to move from public spaces, that the City of Toronto should develop an amnesty program whereby homeless people can clear their records, and that the Toronto Police should avoid regularly stopping young people because they are homeless (O’Grady, Gaetz & Buccieri, 2011, p.15).

*Names changed to protect confidentiality

Written by Angela Bain

Works Cited:

O’Grady, Bill, Gaetz, Stephen, & Buccieri, Kristy, (2011). Can I See Your ID? The Policing of Youth Homelessness in Toronto. (Toronto: JFCY & Homeless Hub).