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Why Did Canada Fine This Homeless Man $80,000?

There's something ass-backwards about police who make it tougher for those living on the street.

A homeless person takes refuge in a bus shelter in Montreal. THE CANADIAN PRESS IMAGES/Graham Hughes

The file on the conference room table at the Droit Devant legal clinic is about six inches thick, brimming with hundreds of sheets of paper. They are all fines, dating back over a decade, and represent a $110,000 [$81,000 USD] worth of legal woes for one homeless man.

There's no way those fines will ever be paid to the Montreal municipal court. The man who owes them has left the province, and there is no way of knowing if or when he'll be back in town, says Isabelle Raffestin, the coordinator of the Droit Devant, a legal services organization specializing in helping the homeless navigate the judicial system.

She says the man, who is in his 50s and in poor physical and mental health, is the perfect representative of the paradox at the heart of the city's homeless policy—and an example of the way police can make life even tougher for people living on the street. It's no secret that Montreal cops have monthly ticket quotas to meet. The police admitted as much two years ago. But Raffestin says those quotas are being met in large part by handing them out to the homeless, even with the knowledge that the fines will likely never be paid. She says the grounds for many of the tickets issued to the homeless are flimsy—making noise, sleeping in the metro—and serve only to further burden an already marginalized group. "The homeless are easy targets," Raffestin says. "Sometimes, we get someone coming to us who's been given three separate tickets from the same encounter." She says she can sometimes tell which cop handed out the fine based on the infraction. Those who have lived on the streets and gone through the legal system say the homeless in Montreal are caught in a weird echo-chamber of the city's making. They are well-served when they want to access social services, programs, and legal aid—but they wouldn't need them if they weren't made such easy targets for police in the first place. Alexandre Berthelot has had his share of dealing with Montreal police. A former street kid, drifter, and addict, Berthelot says he'd been given countless tickets, including once for flicking ash off his cigarette. "It was under some bylaw that was designed to stop people from emptying their wood stove ovens on the sidewalk," he says. Berthelot, 34, says living as a homeless person with thousands of dollars' worth of unpaid fines is incredibly stressful. "You're constantly living in fear with that hanging over your head," he says. He's seen the consequences of this situation time and again. "A lot of kids I knew, they'd be halfway there [getting off the street], but then they'd wind up back in jail, losing their house, losing their job," he tells VICE. "The legal system is self-defeating. Tickets don't mean a whole hell of a lot [to the homeless]. It's like, 'Just add it to the collection.'" The city's new leader has made a big deal of how to change the approach to the homeless. In 2014, Mayor Denis Coderre announced the city was taking steps to address the issue, including the building of 1,000 short and long-term housing units, implementing a homeless census, and changing police attitudes. According to Bernard St-Jacques, a community organizer at homeless advocacy group RAPSIM, there have been some changes for the better since the beginning of this decade—but those changes haven't necessarily been followed up on. He says there has been a softening of approach toward the homeless by some officers, with less abuse and more respect shown in their daily interactions. But that hasn't been universal. "There needs to be a change of culture, and the culture of the police changes very slowly," he says. He adds that some recent urban renewal projects targeting traditional homeless hang-out spots have uprooted the population. He mentions Berri and Cabot Squares, two open spaces on Ste-Catherine Street at either end of the city's downtown core that have undergone massive changes in recent years. Both were redesigned to emphasize openness over seclusion, giving them an airier, sunnier feel. Trees were replaced and benches installed, making them more inviting to a public that avoided them in the past because they were, frankly, kind of scary. St-Jacques also points to the imminent redesign of Viger Square, a spot near Old Montreal where homeless camps spring up year round, as another place lost to the homeless. He applauds the police's efforts to change the way they interact with the homeless, but he recognizes there are limits. There was a significant crackdown on drinking in public last summer, one that the homeless population felt more keenly than others. St-Jacques says they were calling it the "Summer of the Empties" because police were constantly forcing people to empty their bottles or cans. A recent report by St-Jacques's organization revealed that most people who are or work with homeless didn't feel that police interaction with them had improved in recent years. While some officers have been trained specifically to deal with people suffering from mental illness and partner with social workers specifically to deal with the homeless, too many others aren't, and they remain overly aggressive with the homeless population. Other incidents, including at least three police shootings of homeless men since 2011 and one in January 2014 involving a cop threatening to tie an obviously non compos mentis panhandler to a pole in Arctic-like weather, serve as reminders that tensions can still be acutely felt. Berthelot got off the streets in 2001, long before any signs of mellowing, and he eventually got help from the Droit Devant clinic in order to sort out the mess of tickets and infractions he'd accumulated in just a few short years on the street. They pointed him towards a Montreal municipal court program designed to help homeless people leave the streets, one that involves meeting with a public prosecutor and essentially making a case for a ticket amnesty. "I saw it as educating the prosecutor," he says. "Telling him about real life, about what happens beneath all that paperwork." The tickets were dropped, freeing him from thousands of dollars of debt and the anxiety of having to deal with the courts. That, he said, was an enormous relief. "Without forgetting about everything that happened [while he was living on the streets], I could leave it all behind." He's now in the midst of completing an education degree at McGill. Follow Patrick Lejtenyi on Twitter.