Charges against a group of Toronto panhandlers held by police in connection with the stabbing death of a tourist last week are expected to be upgraded Tuesday from aggravated assault to murder, police sources say.
Ross Hammond of St. Catharines, Ont., died early Saturday morning in a Toronto hospital from multiple stab wounds. Police say Mr. Hammond, 32, and a friend were walking on Queen Street West toward Niagara Street last Thursday when four panhandlers approached them for money.
That quickly turned into a heated exchange, and Mr. Hammond was stabbed in the back and chest. It is not clear how the situation escalated to a fight, or what the timeline of the stabbings was; some of the suspects also received stab wounds.
It is also unclear why investigators have waited this long to upgrade the charges, and what degree of murder charge will be filed against the two male and two female panhandlers, all in their early 20s.
Mr. Hammond became the city's 51st homicide victim of 2007, and his killing reignited debate over Toronto's approach to dealing with panhandlers.
Monday, Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty warned against overreacting to the fatal attack on Mr. Hammond, saying it is not necessarily a symptom of something more serious.
"I've been Premier for four years; an MPP for 17," he said. "There may have been other incidents of grave injury caused by panhandlers, but nothing's coming to my mind."
A spokesman for Mayor David Miller, Stuart Green, said the incident was far beyond a case of aggressive panhandling, which he pointed out is already illegal: "What happened on the weekend is tragic, and is really regrettable, but it's not the norm."
Mr. Green said the city has taken action on panhandling, launching a pilot project to survey panhandlers downtown in order to devise a strategy to tackle the problem.
The project, run by the city's shelter, support and housing administration division, began this July and will run through September. Phil Brown, the division's general manager, stressed that the project does not target aggressive panhandlers. He said it targets only those who panhandle lawfully. The project has three goals, Mr. Brown said, the first being to find out why panhandlers do what they do.
"Some panhandle just for cigarettes, some panhandle because they've run out of food, some panhandle because they can't pay the rent. Other people panhandle for … drugs," Mr. Brown said.
The nine workers conducting the project also tell panhandlers about the services available to them, Mr. Brown said - from food banks to health care and housing.
In many ways, the panhandling pilot project is built on the same foundations as a similar initiative targeting the homeless that began two years ago. By focusing on social services and working with the homeless through every step of securing shelter, it managed to get 1,300 people off the streets in two years, Mr. Brown said.
However, staff working on the panhandling project do not deal with aggressive panhandlers who threaten, use abusive language or solicit while intoxicated. Those people fall under the jurisdiction of the police.
Earlier this year, a Toronto City Council committee considered a ban on panhandling in downtown tourist areas. Several advocacy groups blasted the proposal as unconstitutional. Some local businesses also rallied against the ban.
It is as yet unclear what, if any, impact last Thursday's killing will have on the panhandling ban or similar proposals.
"Council has already determined that panhandling is an issue in Toronto," Mr. Green said. " … We can't make aggressive panhandling any more illegal than it already is."
With a report from Canadian Press