Hot! Helping homeless helps reduce crime

winnipegsun.com – opinion/columnists
First Posted: Tuesday, August 2, 2011.   By Floyd Perras, Winnipeg Sun

Crime levels in Canada are at an all-time low for the first time in 38 years, according to a recent Statistics Canada report. In fact, severity of crime has dropped by a whopping 22% since 1999.

Interestingly enough, the downturn in the crime rate began in 1992, about the same time homeless shelters began to open across the country.

I don’t think that’s a coincidence — those without a fixed address are likely spending their winters at homeless shelters instead of prisons.

I remember the days before shelters when some individuals would commit a petty crime just to spend winter jailed up in a warm cell.

Reducing poverty

I am not suggesting homeless individuals are violent criminals — studies show the homeless don’t commit the most violent of crimes.

There are many like myself who advocate that reducing poverty reduces crime. Taking care of our homelessness crisis will not only reduce crime, but also the cost of our justice system.

I was in court one day defending myself against a speeding ticket, and there was a woman charged with driving without insurance.

The judge could see she was having a difficult time in her life and making poor decisions, partly because of the financial pressures and partly because she seemed incapable of making good ones.

It was a sad situation. The judge thought no matter what he would do, she would likely repeat the offense. She had a car, and a job that required a car, but she said there wasn’t enough money for insurance.

To avoid losing her job and her financial means, she chose to drive without insurance. The judge ended up giving the woman a $2,500 fine, and suggested she do community at a non-profit organization instead of paying her fine.

Although I talked to her about doing hours where I worked, she never made further contact.

My sense was life was overwhelming her and she felt trapped in her situation.

It is easy to say she had a choice not to break the law.

It’s not always so cut and dry.

Breaking the law

Whether I would have to pay my speeding ticket was neither here nor there, but if the woman had to pay a $2,500 fine, her life would change dramatically.

She was fighting to not be homeless, but she was losing. In her fight to survive, she was breaking the law.

So what do lower crime rates actually mean?

To me it means we are doing better at caring for people, even though Manitoba still has the highest crime rate among the provinces.

Does that mean we should hire more police and pass tougher laws? Maybe.

Does it mean we should expand our support for those in poverty? Probably.

Do we need more prisons? No, because we put too many non-violent offenders in prison. Obviously those who have shown to be dangerous offenders and seriously victimized others should be kept from continuing acts of violence.

What I do know is lifting people out of poverty will only continue to drop our crime rates.

— Floyd Perras is executive director of Siloam Mission.

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