Homelessness Reduction and Police Abolition: The Case for an Interlinked Process

In the past year the scale of homelessness in Canada has been made more visible through the increased number of individuals living in encampments. Despite international guidelines advocating for the allowance of homelessness encampments in public places under the current pandemic conditions, police across Canada have been permitted by municipal law to carry out evictions. At least in part as a result of this, individuals are moving from homelessness to detention centres at a rate higher than previous years.

A solution to this problem arises from calls that have intensified in the past year to abolish police forces. In this context some city leaders, in several cities in the United States such as San Diego, are advocating for a reduction of police budgets and a reallocation of the surplus funds. Yet in most of these cities verbal commitments and city budgets have not aligned. Canadian cities, spending on average between 10 and 15 percent of their budgets on policing, have similarly resisted calls to action. Yet, given how homelessness and policing are intricately connected, reallocating funds from police budgets to social housing budgets has the potential to be transformative.

Rethinking Policing in Canada

The notion of policing in Canada stems from the establishment of the first police force in the United Kingdom. The police force in the United Kingdom was established on the basis of a shared agreement within the community: the police force, as citizens on equal footing with other community members, had to gain the consent and trust of the community through accountability and transparency. Following in line, officials in Canada quickly established the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) in 1873. Yet, with Canada’s experiences with colonization and slavery, the shared agreement was largely amongst white settler Canadians to the exclusion of Indigenous and racialized individuals.

Connecting the past to the present, scholars and activists calling for police abolition (such as Olamide Olaniyan and Robyn Maynard) point to how the establishment of the police was used as a strategy to contain and marginalize racialized populations. With colonization and slavery becoming politically unacceptable on an international scale, states such as Canada did not simply reorientate to embrace inclusivity and equity but rather relied on institutions such as the RCMP to discretely maintain racial inequality. This is where calls for police abolition in Canada, and elsewhere, stem from.

Calls for police abolition in practice typically translate into policy calls to defund police forces. This is the stance taken by both Black Lives Matter in the United States and Black Lives Matter Canada. It is argued, in the context of police violence, that the defunding of the police will save lives of racialized populations. This can work in two ways. First, by defunding or reducing funding of police forces, the power difference between police officers and civilians is decreased. This would reset police forces and citizens on an equal footing as the initial context of a ‘shared agreement’ aimed to achieve. Second, the resources going towards police forces can be reallocated to poverty reduction initiatives, such as social housing construction.

The amount spent on policing each year is a significant amount and if reallocated could be transformative. Nationally, total police expenses in Canada was reported to be $15.7 billion in 2018/2019 and has been steadily increasing since 1996/1997. Comparatively, the National Housing Strategy in Canada, which aims to increase affordable housing stock and reduce homelessness, is reported to have a budget of approximately $70 billion over the span of 10 years. What this translates to is an average of approximately $7 billion allocated to affordable housing per year. This is slightly less than half per year than what is spent on policing and potentially equal to what is spent on police budgets when contributory and matching funds are added to this number. 

Ultimately the question that needs to be asked is: does this balance of funding make sense? The answer is necessarily no. The current housing benefits are not leading to universal access to housing that allows for “security, peace and dignity”—the main requirements of the Right to Housing commitment the federal government has made. In fact, police practices are counteracting this commitment by enforcing anti-homelessness legislation, such as municipal by-laws that restrict access to public parks in terms of both hours and activities (i.e., Kingston, Ontario’s by-law allows for opening/closing hours to be posted and explicitly states “the use of any camping equipment is prohibited”). Additionally, because of the demographics found in Point-in Time counts in Canada, police forces, through these actions, continue to over-police racialized populations.

Race, Prison, and Homelessness

Homelessness is a result of a commodified setting in which not everyone is able to afford basic necessities, such as shelter and food. While state and non-state shelters and food banks have sprung up to address the needs of those left behind by the capitalist system, demand often outweighs supply. This leads to individuals sleeping in public spaces and obtaining food in ways that go against established norms. In response to these survival strategies, laws have been passed that allow police forces to dispel homeless individuals from public spaces and to further criminalize those who have no alternatives.  

With this there is a significant amount of overlap between homeless populations and prison populations. Data from the early 2000s shows that a majority of homeless individuals surveyed in Calgary and Toronto reported having been in prison at least once in their lives. Homelessness and imprisonment are typically not singular events though. Other studies point to a ‘revolving door’ between homelessness and prisons with individuals being imprisoned while homeless and/or being released without the establishment of secure housing. 

The individuals who experience this ‘revolving door’ are often racialized and Indigenous. While statistics clearly showing the overlap do not exist, the overrepresentation of these populations in both prison populations and homeless populations, in the context of the revolving door, makes a strong case for this understanding. For instance, Indigenous individuals make up 20-50% of urban homeless populations while making up 31% of prison populations (broken down by province and gender in Chart 1). Reliable and comparable statistics for racialized populations do not exist, yet community-based Point-in Time counts similarly find that Black and immigrant populations are overrepresented.

Chart 1 (data from Statistics Canada)

Why are Indigenous and racialized populations overrepresented amongst homeless and imprisoned populations? Canadian society has been set up to reinforce the marginalization of these populations. Both the labour market and the police force were established in ways to support this project. Robyn Maynard makes it especially clear that the labour market is established in the form of a racial hierarchy, with racialized populations making up a disproportionate percentage of those who hold the lowest wage jobs while the police force continues to see racialized and Indigenous populations as inherently criminal. Together, these processes keep these populations at the margins and at a higher risk of experiencing both homelessness and criminalization.

Righting Wrongs by Rewriting Budgets 

Some have suggested that police can play a role in homelessness reduction strategies. However, with the discriminatory beliefs and practices built into policing it is hard to see how this is possible or desirable for the racialized and Indigenous populations police officers seek to help. The solution to the problem is the rebalancing of budgets that reduce spending on police forces and increase spending on social housing solutions. By providing marginalized populations with stable housing there will be less of a need for police forces given how there will be a reduction in the need to patrol streets and parks to enforce anti-homeless legislation. Thus, the logical move is to right historical wrongs that contribute to both homelessness and imprisonment of marginalized populations by rewriting budgets in a way that provides increased funds for social housing and decreased funds for police budgets.

The views, thoughts, and opinions expressed in this article belong solely to the author, and do not reflect the views of Conversationally Speaking Magazine.
Lori Oliver
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Lori Oliver is a doctoral student in the Department of Political Studies at Queen’s University and a SSHRC Joseph-Armand Bombardier Doctoral Scholar. Her research interests include gendered welfare state politics, poverty, housing/homelessness policies, and intersectional inequalities. Lori previously worked on community-based research projects with ACORN Canada, Adsum for Women & Children, and the IWK Health Centre. Her current PhD research is critically assessing gaps in social safety nets and homelessness initiatives that contribute to increasing levels of family homelessness.

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