At Old City Hall, just a few days ago, RJ’s name filled up the afternoon docket. Over a period of 10 years RJ had accumulated thousands of dollars in fines for provincial offences. With the assistance of his representative from the Fair Change Legal Clinic, RJ was appealing to the court for a more compassionate sentence than had already been imposed. Although the fines came from different pieces of legislation including the Safe Streets Act, Liqour License Act, Trespass to Property Act, and TTC bylaws, a common theme united them all—each of these convictions were the result of RJ’s homelessness.
The legal arguments for RJ’s appeal were not overly sophisticated. RJ relied on a provision of the Provincial Offences Act which allows the court to reduce or remove a fine when “…exceptional circumstances exist” such that “[imposing] the minimum fine would be unduly oppressive or otherwise not in the interests of justice.” Thus, in order for his appeal to succeed RJ had to persuade the court that his circumstances were exceptional. Finding and highlighting the facts that would demonstrate RJ’s circumstances were exceptional was the easy part. The challenging part was living the facts in the first place, and this was a task that RJ had to combat on his own.
From a very young age RJ suffered with severe social anxiety which ultimately lead to undiagnosed depression. Due to persistent bullying and degrading social situations, simply leaving the house became a source of distress for him. One of his only sources of solace in those situations was alcohol, which he began to abuse as early as the Seventh grade. He would consume alcohol in anticipation of uncomfortable social situations to relieve anxiety. And when such an encounter would occur, as they often did, he would consume alcohol in hopes of finding a source of comfort.
At the age of 14, RJ’s anxiety, depression, and addiction substantially worsened. Peers would pick on him for his physical appearance, perceived sexual orientation, and inability to socialize. It was at that time that he first came into contact with the criminal justice system and was forced to move to a behavior modification school. The change only lessened his desire to attend school, go to work, and fulfill family obligations, all while his addiction intensified.
At the age of 17, and after spending extended periods of time kicked out of or seeking relief from his family home, RJ moved into an apartment with individuals in similar circumstances. The environment was toxic and drugs and alcohol were in constant circulation. After two years, RJ moved to Toronto in a similar environment for a few short months. But with previous means of making an income proving impractical due to a criminal conviction, RJ began living on the street almost instantly. And the street is where he would stay for the next twelve years.
RJ began working with Fair Change in the fall of 2016. But the labors that would be required to persuade the court began much earlier. Not long after receiving his final conviction in 2013, RJ entered the Ossington Men’s Withdrawal center where he has attained and sustained sobriety. Shortly after, RJ began staying at the Native Men’s Residence where he was able to secure stable housing and participate in a number of rehabilitation programs. One program that RJ became aware of while at the Native Men’s Residence was the transitional year program offered at the University of Toronto. The program acts to bridge the educational gap that some have between high school and university. As a result, students in the program have the opportunity to enroll in a few first-year university courses. RJ did so, and performed exceptionally well. He received course awards, scholarships, and multiple A’s. The result was an offer of admission at the University of Toronto.
The crux of RJ’s legal argument was that, after fighting his way off the street, imposing the fines for his past convictions would almost certainly have an ill effect. RJ had already addressed the central cause of these convictions: his homelessness. In fact, given RJ’s still precarious financial state, imposing a fine could encourage re-offending by increasing his chances of becoming homeless once more.
In his appeal hearing, the submissions made on RJ’s behalf touched on all of these points. The court learned about RJ’s remarkable journey from extreme poverty and homelessness to an Honours student at the University of Toronto; from hopelessness and despair to hope and possibility. What was clear to every person in Courtroom that afternoon who heard RJ’s story, including the judge, was that RJ was an exceptional individual who had overcome exceptional circumstances. The result was a suspended sentence on all convictions and a reduction of RJ’s fines from nearly $5000 to zero. It was a great day for RJ and for Fair Change.
RJ’s inspirational story is one of individual success that should certainly be celebrated. And RJ’s story is undoubtedly unique. But the criminalization of poverty in Ontario is not. Tickets issues under the Safe Streets Act and similarly oppressive pieces of legislation are on the rise. In addition to being a story about individual triumph, RJ’s story also tells us that in order to have the court come to a commonsense consensus one needs to single handedly address their struggles with homelessness, alcohol abuse and mental illness while finding a representative that is willing to work with them for a year on a pro-bono basis.
So, rather than expecting individuals to meet this unrealistic standard, why don’t we just stop ticketing people experiencing homeless in the first place?
Additional credit to the Fair Change Legal Clinic