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On the Need for a Street Newspaper in Ottawa

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Section: Ottawa Geography: Ontario ottawa Topics: dominion, poverty

April 7, 2004

On the Need for a Street Newspaper in Ottawa

by Jane Scharf

During a protest that I conducted on Rideau Street in the summer of 2002, I noticed some very disturbing things about the homeless population. The vast majority were youth, and almost all the long time street people that I had met over the years were nowhere to be seen. And despite the massive cuts to the welfare system, I noticed that the number of homeless persons had remained constant. This did not make any sense. I knew by experience that the vast majority of people who were cut off welfare would not have been capable of going to work because of the major barriers to employment.

I studied the situation as closely as I could. What I discovered was alarming: 650,000 people were cut off welfare following the enactment of the Social Assistance Reform Act of 1997. To hide the anticipated increase in panhandling and homelessness, the Progressive Conservative Government of Ontario began to sweep the streets under new provincial legislation that made it illegal to be homeless. Panhandling and squeegeeing were criminalized under the Safe Streets Act, and massive numbers of homeless people were placed in jail under new legislation that mandated the incarceration of homeless people even if they were not a danger to themselves or others, the previous standard. Jails were used to hold people waiting for a psychiatric assessment under regressive changes to the Mental Health act known as Brian's Law. The holding time was lengthy, as the number of hospital beds was cut dramatically during the same period of time. Judges and prison officials complained publicly about this swamping of the jails.

I planned a protest of these two pieces of legislation last summer at 10 Rideau in front of the provincial welfare offices. About thirty homeless persons--mostly youths--joined me. We set up what we called the Homeless Action Strike under the Terry Fox Bridge, adjacent to the provincial welfare offices. These homeless persons gave testimony to the press about the treatment they had been receiving by the welfare system and police. The strike lasted two months during which time we did a lot of exposure of these issues that we like to think helped the Conservatives lose the election.

During the protest I witnessed police brutalization of homeless persons, especially around panhandling and sleeping outside. Physical violence and verbal abuse was common. I was subject to violence by police when they shut down our protest under the pretext that our protest sign was against a bylaw that prohibits the erecting of a business sign. I was roughly removed from the protest sight and placed in jail for non-violently refusing to relinquish our sign which said "Living at the Ritz Under the Bridge." I simply sat on the sign and refused to hand it over. The ticket for the sign was never filed with the court yet I am still charged for "criminal mischief" for refusing to surrender the sign.

We had a petition against the Safe Streets Act and Brian's Law calling for a reinstatement of welfare rights circulated which will be read in the Provincial Legislature shortly by the Liberal MLA Phil McNealy.

The resulting media attention did serve to slightly improve the response to youth by the welfare system and to reduce the brutality of the homeless panhandlers by police. The team of outreach workers and police that had been picking up homeless persons was disbanded.

"650,000 people were cut off welfare following the enactment of the Social Assistance Reform Act of 1997."
However, the homeless are still being ticketed for panhandling and sleeping outside. Homelessness is a shameful and unnecessary feature of life in the Capital city of one of the world's richest countries. Unfortunately, maintaining the most minimal human rights and dignity for homeless people is what is most pressing right now, and there is much work to be done.

With the help of the Ottawa Industrial Workers of the World, we are organizing panhandlers as a bargaining unit. Together, we are recruiting volunteers to provide support to panhandlers filing complaints to police and in securing legal assistance for panhandling and illegal camping tickets.

What is most urgently needed is a way to respond productively to the criminalization of panhandling and the lack of economic opportunities for the homeless. A newspaper is a straightforward way to address both of these needs.

Unlike most urban centres in Canada, Ottawa does not have a street newspaper. In other cities, street newspapers provide a source of income for homeless people.

In addition to meeting needs, a street newspaper can be a powerful tool for calling attention to the reality of the streets where it is sold. It should include the views and serve the interests of the common folk and the disenfranchised, not just the wealthy and powerful people who own all of the major newspapers in Canada.

I checked out many papers as possible candidates.

"Unlike most urban centres in Canada, Ottawa does not have a street newspaper. In other cities, street newspapers provide a source of income for homeless people."
A friend of mine recommended that I check out the Dominion. Right away I recognized that this paper had the kind of integrity that fit the bill.

In the Dominion, I found coverage of citizens' resistance of government and corporate corruption and stories about the rebuilding of our Canadian communities.

A deal was struck with the Dominion to include an Ottawa section in the paper to give it local significance and the first publication will hit the streets next week. Poor and homeless persons will sell the paper as a source of income for themselves.

I myself am on such a low income I find it necessary to panhandle. On April second--my birthday--I got a ticket for $70. I had a verbal argument with the police officers, which resulted in a discussion about the need to panhandle. I mentioned the plans for a street newspaper, and to my surprise, they indicated that they approved of this plan.

I am hopeful that the Dominion will make much needed access to truth and social justice for the poor and homeless in Ottawa possible.

Jane Scharf is the Ottawa Coordinator of the Dominion

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The Dominion is a monthly paper published by an incipient network of independent journalists in Canada. It aims to provide accurate, critical coverage that is accountable to its readers and the subjects it tackles. Taking its name from Canada's official status as both a colony and a colonial force, the Dominion examines politics, culture and daily life with a view to understanding the exercise of power.

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