City of Victoria’s Parks Bylaw is Violent and Cruel

On Thursday May 14, City staff posted at MEEGAN (aka ‘beaconhill park’) a document titled “Important Notice COVID-19 Response – Parks”.

At the top of the document, the City says: “The Parks Regulations Bylaw governing sheltering in City Parks remains in effect. However, in response to the COVID-19 pandemic and in an effort to allow for self-isolation as directed by public health authorities, the City of Victoria has deferred enforcement of the rule requiring individual tents used for sheltering to come down by 7 a.m. Regular rules continue to apply for all other aspects of the Parks Regulation Bylaw.”

In this post we break down:

  1. What the “regular rules” are in the City’s Parks Regulations Bylaw that the City says continue to apply,
  2. What the City’s May 14 COVID-19 notice says, and why this is even more harmful than the City’s usual bullshit rules, and
  3. What you can do to stop it. 

On top of the City’s Parks Regulations Bylaw, there are also two other bylaws that have been used to harass  homeless people sleeping in parks in ‘victoria’: the CRD’s Clean Air Bylaw No. 3962, and the City’s Fire Prevention and Regulation Bylaw. These three bylaws are rolled into the City’s Rules for Temporary Overnight Shelter for Parks in Victoria. Although all three bylaws (and the City’s overall rules) are problematic, the main issue right now is how the City is applying the Parks Regulations Bylaw in COVID times so that’s what we’re going to talk about here.

As context, we also want to point out that the City’s harmful response would have big impacts at any time, but it’s especially deadly right now when the situation is so different than it was pre-COVID. Already deaths have happened, with three people in the street community dying in the past week. It is urgent that the City change its direction, and STOP making a bad situation even worse. 

Before the COVID health emergency, people living outside often had to hustle hard to meet their needs, but at least there was some access to survival resources and services — money from panhandling/binning/sex work; some access to food, clothing, bathrooms, drinking water, laundry, showers, handwashing, health care, harm reduction services, transportation to appointments, etc. It already wasn’t enough and already people were dying as a result of inadequate access to these basics and lack of access to drug supply. Already, pre-COVID, the median age of death for homeless people was 40-49, half the average lifespan of people living in ‘bc’. 

Since mid-March when these survival services abruptly closed, the drug supply became even more toxic, and people’s income dropped sharply, people living outside have been in a much more precarious situation. This got even worse in mid-May, when as a result of the ‘bc’ government’s push to provide intensive services at eight rapidly created shelter sites for 360 people specifically sheltering at Topaz and Pandora, community services were totally gutted to reorient to those new sites. Now people no longer have access to the material basics they had before, or to survival services. It has been one disaster after enough for the past two months.

In the midst of this, the City has failed hard. They have not ensured 24/7 bathroom access, access to safe drinking water, or access to handwashing. The failure to address people’s basic hygiene needs is deeply disappointing any time but especially in a pandemic where handwashing is the main way to prevent transmission. Now they are going after people sheltering in parks, stealing and destroying people’s belongings.

1. What the Parks Regulations Bylaw says

Under the Parks Regulations Bylaw and Amendment people are not allowed to do many things. A lot of these make sense if you think about parks as places that housed people go to for a few hours for fun and recreation. But none of these rules make sense when applied to people who are unhoused and living in parks 24/7, and cause serious harm. This has been an issue for many years. So when in COVID times the City says “Regular rules continue to apply for all other aspects of the Parks Regulation Bylaw”, they are confirming that rules that have always been harmful are going to continue to apply even in the current extraordinary situation when more people than usual are sheltering outside, and when people sheltering outside have even less options for basics like water, showers, bathrooms, harm reduction and health services, drop-in spaces, food, etc.

As an example of how the standard Parks rules don’t make sense and are applied in harmful ways to homeless people, one of the rules is that nobody is allowed to destroy or damage a tree, shrub, plant, turf, flower, seed. That sounds good, who doesn’t love plants! But when housed people use this to complain about grass going brown from a tent being on top of it, forcing people to move their tents constantly so the grass can come back, that’s not about protecting plants — that’s about poor-bashing and trying to make homeless people suffer. Similarly, when housed people complain that homeless people are getting in the way of their free use and enjoyment of a park, what they’re saying is that their “right” to toss around a frisbee trumps the right to survive. 

The United Nations National Protocol for Homeless Encampments in Canada is clear: “Common reasons used to justify evictions of encampments, such as ‘public interest,’ ‘city beautification’, development or re-development, or at the behest of private actors (e.g., real estate firms), do not justify forced evictions”. The City has, for years, been harming homeless people and violating human rights law by using ‘public interest’ and ‘beautification’ to justify forced evictions.

The City’s usual rules, that have been specifically used to harass and evict homeless people living in parks for many years, are:

  • Nobody is allowed to park a vehicle for a purpose other than temporarily visiting the park, park longer than 3.5 hours between 7 AM and 6 PM Monday to Friday, park a vehicle “for the purpose of sleeping overnight”, or sleep overnight in a vehicle in a park.
  • Nobody is allowed to destroy or damage a tree, shrub, plant, turf, flower, seed, building, or structure (including fence, sign, seat, bench, ornament).
  • Nobody is allowed to put garbage, debris, or other substances anywhere except a “receptacle provided for that purpose”.
  • Nobody is allowed to behave in a “disorderly or offensive manner” or “obstruct the free use and enjoyment of the park by another person”.
  • A City employee who is doing cleanup, maintenance, or other work in a park can ask any person in the park to move or leave the park if that’s necessary for the employee to do their work. The person asked to leave has to promptly comply and take anything with them that the City employee says they have to take.
  • Nobody is allowed to drink alcohol without a license issued under the Liquor Control and Licensing Act.
  • Nobody is allowed to carry or make a fire, unless the City gives prior written consent and the fire is in a “lawfully authorized fire pit”.
  • Nobody is allowed to put up a tent or other shelter, unless they’re homeless or have a permit from the City.
  • Homeless people:
    • Can’t set up, use, or maintain any kind of structure or overhead shelter (including a tent, lean-to, or anything else made from a tarp, plastic, cardboard, or any other material) from 7 AM to 7 PM November to February, 7 AM to 8 PM when Daylight Saving time is in effect March to October. This is often called the 7-to-7 rule and this is the only component of the bylaw that the City is temporarily waiving in these COVID times. 
    • Can’t put up a tent at any time in specifically designated spots, including:
      • Bastion Square, Haegert Park, Cridge Park, Kings Park, Arbutus Park, Reeson Park, Quadra Park, or Coffin Island
      • A playground, sports field, footpath, or road within a park
      • An environmentally sensitive area, heritage site, or area having “historical or cultural significance to British Columbia or an aboriginal people” (Ross Bay Cemetery, Pioneer Square, Moss Rock Park, Franklin Green Park, Centennial Square)
      • Any area of the park that the City has given a permit to for a specific event or activity

Surveillance, Enforcement/Punishment, and Stealing People’s Belongings

Under the Parks Regulations Bylaw, anyone who breaks one of the rules of the Bylaw is “guilty of an offence and liable on conviction to the penalties imposed by this Bylaw and the Offence Act”. Every day that someone breaks one of the Bylaw rules, that’s considered a separate offence so people can be ticketed every day. People are not allowed to “interfere in any way with” a City employee or Bylaw officer enforcing any aspect of this Bylaw.

There’s a double standard in who is surveilled, and how the Parks Regulations Bylaw is enforced and who is considered to be causing “damage”. Kids who play in parks routinely pick flowers, housed people accidentally kick soccer balls into plants, loud dude bros make many people wince, etc…but nobody goes after them. Building housing, roads, stores, etc. means paving over dirt, crushing everything under it; the reality is that human survival needs do impact the environment. Yet homeless people are constantly being portrayed as particularly causing damage or getting in the way. City staff, Bylaw officers, Fire inspectors, and police officers routinely surveil and invade homeless people’s living spaces in ways that they would never do for housed people. This constant surveillance and threat of invasion is, in and of itself, punishment.

One of the most harmful punishments happening intensely right now is that under the bylaw people’s belongings can be seized, removed, or “impounded” (i.e., stolen) by the City’s Director of Parks, Recreation & Community Development or someone who they authorize to act for them; a bylaw officer; or a police officer. This means people might lose all their belongings, including immediate survival needs like a tent, sleeping bag, and ID; as well as irreplaceable things like pictures of children, treasured gifts, etc.

Normally if this inherently harmful practice of stealing people’s belongings happens, the Parks Regulations Bylaw says that:

  • The items must be made available to be claimed by the person they belong to, within 6 hours of it being removed/taken. A claim can be made by going to the Bylaw and Licensing Services office (625 Pandora) 8 AM to 4 PM, Monday to Friday.
  • If the items aren’t claimed within 30 days they can be sold to the highest bidder, or thrown out as garbage.
  • If the items are sold, after deducting costs and fees, any surplus must go to the person who owned those belongings, if that person’s identity and location are known. If the City doesn’t know who the items belong to, they have to hold the surplus for one year after the auction and if not claimed in that time the City will keep the money.

But in COVID times, the City isn’t following their own rules and instead is immediately destroying people’s belongings. The City’s May 14 COVID-19 Response notice says: “Please note that due to COVID-19 pandemic health concerns, impounded items are more likely to be disposed of as hazardous material rather than stored”. The City is using COVID as an excuse to violate its own bylaws and destroy homeless people’s belongings. 

2. What the City’s May 14 COVID-19 notice says

Photo of May 14 City notice, posted by Humans of Beacon Hill Park

The City’s May 14 COVID-19 Response notice says: “This is to inform you that the following items/objects and structures are subject to removal and disposal by the City”. In our chart below we break down what the notice says can be removed, how this causes harm (and is unnecessary and unhelpful), and what it would take for the City to align with the United Nations National Protocol for Homeless Encampments in Canada so the City is treating people respectfully and stops violating international human rights obligations.
[Note: if you’re viewing this on a phone or tablet the chart won’t read properly, you can view it in a Google doc instead]

So there’s no doubt about the City’s obligations, the UN Protocol specifically says: “International human rights law does not permit governments to destroy peoples’ homes, even if those homes are made of improvised materials and established without legal authority. Governments may not remove residents from encampments without meaningfully engaging with them and identifying alternative places to live that are acceptable to them. Any such removal from their homes or from the land which they occupy, without the provision of appropriate forms of legal protection, is defined as a ‘forced eviction’ and is considered a gross violation of human rights. The removal of residents’ private property without their knowledge and consent is also strictly prohibited.” The City’s Parks Bylaw, and especially its May 14 COVID-19 Response notice, violates these obligations. 

What the City says it may removeWhy this is harmful and ridiculousTo align with UN directions, the City needs to…
Anything that creates a fire or safety hazard including but not limited to pallets, firewood, cardboard, flammable liquids, liquefied petroleum gases such as propaneFire safety is very important. But just like people who have shelter, people living outside need ways to warm up, dry belongings after it rains, heat water for washing, and cook. The City’s requirement contravenes the UN Protocol‘s fire safety guidance which is to take a harm reduction approach and find fire-safe ways of meeting universal human needs.

People living outside also need a way to lift their bed and belongings off wet ground, and to get insulation (e.g., through cardboard). Commercially purchased ground mats are expensive.

Bottom line: You can’t just tell people “don’t meet your needs in these ways” without supporting fire-safe alternatives.
Removal of belongings without consent must cease, as the UN Protocol is clear that this is a human rights violation.

Instead the City should:

(a) Work with the Fire Department and campers to provide resources to address the fire safety guidelines set out in the UN Protocol, following the harm reduction approach set out in that document. The resources identified by the UN include ensuring homeless people have access to: Fire-safety approved sources of heat, including warming tents and in-tent heat sources; fireproof tents; fire evacuation plan; accessible information on fire safety tips and how to handle and store flammable materials; fire extinguishers appropriately spaced and training for residents on how to operate them; electricity/charging stations for phones and laptops; and on-site ashtrays or cigarette disposal posts

(b) Support fire safety education being done in an anti-oppressive manner by individuals requested by those sheltering outside, who may include peers, frontline workers, and/or the Fire Department acting in a content expert, non-enforcement role

(c) Ensure fire-safe alternatives to pallets and cardboard, so people can lift their tents and belongings off wet ground.
Anything that is more than one metre (three feet) away from an occupied tent or shelterOne metre (three feet) is a tiny distance, it is not safe or workable for everything to be that close to a tent.

What will happen to the DIY handwashing stations IHRT has been providing (which if spilled would then flood people’s tents if they’re that close)? What happens to people’s mobility aids or bikes if the nearest thing they can be locked to is more than 3 feet away — especially as people are not supposed to be tenting near park structures?

This is totally incompatible with fire egress requirement of at least 4 metres. This rule means people will have to block safe egress in case of emergency, and creates trip hazards.
Scrap this requirement completely. It makes no sense and creates significant hazards. The UN Protocol is clear that removal of belongings without consent is a human rights violation.
Anything that is unsanitary (e.g., litter, rubbish, garbage, offal, filth, or any noxious, offensive, or unwholesome substance or matter)Without safe storage for people’s belongings this gives Bylaw discretion to decide what is litter/garbage and what might be something valuable. The reality is that wind can blow things away, DIY handwashing stations might be misunderstood as garbage, etc.

This also creates risk that whole tents might be thrown away if City workers consider them to contain materials that are “offensive” or “unwholesome”, e.g., harm reduction supplies or other stigmatized necessities.

(Also, “offal”, really? Does the City actually think people are storing animal organs in camps?)
Removal of belongings without consent must cease, as the UN Protocol is clear that this is a human rights violation.

Instead the City should:

(a) Accept that “it is the responsibility of governments to ensure that homeless encampments have sufficient resources for the establishment of waste management systems“ (UN Protocol p. 26). Following the harm reduction approach set out in that document, the resources identified by the UN include ensuring homeless people have access to: Weekly garbage and recycling (more frequent if needed), regular service for waste water and portable toilets, independent waste bins for flammable/hazardous waste, large rodent-proof waste bins with tight fitting lids, garbage bags, cleaning supplies, hand soap, hand sanitizer, and waste water holding tanks (if there are no sewers near encampment).

(b) Work with campers to set up onsite garbage and recycling bins that the City empties promptly, instead of the City having discretion to decide what is/isn’t garbage.

(c) Pay campers for their site maintenance work, as the City would any other maintenance worker.
Anything that is tied or otherwise secured to a tree, shrub, or park infrastructureThis means people can’t put tarps up for protection from wind/rain — they can only drape a tarp directly over top of their tent which means any time they leave their tent they will get soaked.

It also means people are not allowed to lock their mobility aids or bikes to park infrastructure.
Scrap this requirement completely. It is not inherently damaging to secure something to park infrastructure, and the UN Protocol is clear that removal of belongings without consent is a human rights violation.

Instead the City should ask campers what would work for them and then ensure access to realistic alternatives (e.g., freestanding tent covers that are stable and can withstand wind and rain, open-wall tents for food preparation, overdose prevention, etc).
Any tent or structure that is abandoned or remains unoccupied after being tagged by a Bylaw OfficerIf Bylaw comes by and you aren’t there whenever they come, they tag your tent. Then if you aren’t there at the time they come the next day, your tent will be destroyed.

How are people supposed to go the bathroom or go get services / food? What happens to people who have to go to the hospital and can’t be back the next day?
Scrap this requirement entirely. The UN Protocol is clear that this is a human rights violation.
Any tent or structure that occupies more than 9 square metres (100 square feet), e.g., together with all other materials and things covers more than 3 metres by 3 metres (10 feet by 10 feet)This is completely unworkable. Under this rule your tent and all your belongings can’t extend beyond an area the size of two beds side by side. Housed people couldn’t live in a total space this size. Even people in prison don’t live in spaces this small (if you take into account spaces outside cells for canteen, programs, etc.).

A one-size-fits-all (literally, ha ha) requirement doesn’t take into account that some people live together: couples, families, etc.

It doesn’t address the need for communal (not just individual) resources like DIY handwashing stations, showers, etc.
Scrap this requirement entirely. The UN Protocol is clear that this is a human rights violation.
Any tent or structure that is occupied by a person who has another tent or shelter, or who has access to a housing unit or other accommodationThis confines people to one tent, creating a situation that is unsafe for people who may need to leave a tent shared with a partner / friend / family member and tent elsewhere for a time.

It also forces people to take whatever shelter or housing options are offered, even if those options are less safe than sleeping outside, or would force campers to make unacceptable sacrifices (e.g., give up companion animal, throw away belongings). This is a longstanding issue and has been documented as happening multiple times with some of the recent BC Housing shelter placements.
Scrap this requirement entirely. The UN Protocol is clear that this is a human rights violation.
Any tent or structure that is a secondary structure or those not used for the express purpose of sheltering personsThis is completely unworkable. People need safe storage for their belongings. There also need to be spaces that can be used for provision of survival material necessities (water, health and harm reduction supplies, etc.) and essential services (e.g., overdose prevention, primary care delivery, etc.). This can’t always be done in people’s living spaces in their tents.Scrap this requirement entirely. The UN Protocol is clear that this is a human rights violation.
Any tent or structure that gets in the way of egress between structures which must be maintained at an unobstructed width of no less than 4 metres between structuresSafe access is important in case of emergency (e.g., medical emergency, fire, etc.). But the solution is not to remove people’s tents or other survival spaces, or to throw away belongings – the UN Protocol is clear that this is a human rights violation and specifically a violation of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.Removal of tents or structures must cease, as the UN Protocol is clear that this is a human rights violation.

Instead the City should find out who campers want to work with (peers, service providers, etc.) to set up site plans that have safe access in emergencies, while also having sufficient security to provide safety and security so looky-loos, vigilantes, and others can’t come in any time they wish.
Any tent or structure that has been placed in such as a way or location that damage has been caused to sensitive ecosystem areas, playing fields or structures, or other park infrastructureSufficient space needs to be provided for people to shelter and meet physical distancing and egress requirements. If the City’s parks have so many sensitive ecosystems, playing fields, etc. that this requirement can’t be met, that is a problem the City — not campers — has to solve.

Playing fields and some other park infrastructures are not essential survival needs and can be remediated/repaired. If these spaces need to be used to meet human needs, the City needs to accept that.

For sensitive ecosystems, clarity is needed about which areas within parks are sensitive ecosystems and which aren’t, so people aren’t accidentally camping in off-limits areas and then having their tents and belongings destroyed. Access must be fair and equitable, i.e., if homeless people can’t access these areas, neither can housed people.
Work with campers to clarify sensitive ecosystem locations and ensure there are other enough other workable spaces for people to be able to camp.

Removal of tents and other structures must cease, as the UN Protocol is clear that this is a human rights violation.

3. What you can do to stop this violence

We are working with legal advocates to try to stop this. Political action is also needed.

Letters should go to: mayor@victoria.ca; malto@victoria.ca; sdubow@victoria.ca; bisitt@victoria.ca; jloveday@victoria.ca; spotts@victoria.ca; cthornton-joe@victoria.ca; gyoung@victoria.ca 

[send here rather than the generic “mayorandcouncil” email posted on the City’s website, as that generic one goes to City staff so it takes longer to reach councillors]

Points to raise:

The current situation

  • Right now there are not enough shelter spaces for everyone. People have no choice other than to sleep outside.
  • Right now drop-ins, libraries, community centres, and other places homeless people can normally go during the day are still closed, and with COVID still an issue, even when they re-open they are going to have reduced space compared to pre-COVID. This means people are outside 24/7. 
  • People need to be able to shelter 24/7, without living under constant surveillance and fear of eviction, harassment, or damage to belongings.
  • The week of May 11 City staff and Bylaw threw out people’s belongings at MEEGAN (‘beaconhill park’). This was witnessed by a service provider who was onsite when it happened. On May 14 the City posted at MEEGAN a notice with rules that are unworkable and will justify more damage to people’s belongings. On May 16 multiple Bylaw trucks were spotted at MEEGAN.

Why is this an emergency?

  • Every day more people’s belongings are being destroyed. People can’t wait till the next Council meeting on May 28 for this to be resolved.
  • Significant harm has already happened. People have already had their belongings destroyed by the City. People are scared about losing their stuff and feel less safe than before. The City continuing to threaten people in this way creates more trauma.
  • Destroying people’s tents and belongings means people are living outside with no protection from sun, wind, or rain; or having to huddle up together in tiny tents which is not COVID-safe and also not safe in other ways. 
  • This situation leads to outreach workers scrambling to try to replace survival gear, fundraise for more money, document what happened, etc. at a time when outreach workers are beyond exhausted.
  • The deadline for the BC government’s enforcement order clearing Pandora and Topaz is coming up soon and many people living at those sites who didn’t get sheltered are going to have to live outside somewhere else so even more people are going to have to go to parks.

The impacts of the City’s aggressive enforcement of Parks Bylaw

  • Actions by Bylaw and City staff are a violation of people’s human rights and are contrary to United Nations protocols and guidance notes. The City’s actions are violent, cruel, and solve nothing just make people’s lives much worse.
  • Chasing people from park to park by threatening to take their belongings causes serious harm to people’s health and well-being and is NOT a solution to homelessness. If people are chased out of MEEGAN/beaconhill they will have to go to another park and then the cycle starts all over again. 
  • The City says it’s committed to truth and reconciliation, but this decision harms Indigenous people and furthers the colonial agenda of displacement, power-over, and criminalization of survival. In Victoria 33% of the homeless community is Indigenous. Many people living outside are survivors of colonial violence directed specifically against Indigenous people — including forced relocation, residential schools, “Indian hospitals”, and the 60s and 70s scoop. Additionally many Indigenous people living outside are survivors of state violence that while not Indigenous-specific disproportionately impacts Indigenous people, e.g., the foster care system, incarceration, police violence, and the war on people who use drugs.
  • The rules posted by the City of Victoria are unworkable and unfair, reinforce stigma and stereotyping, and set people up to fail. Imagine if you had and all your belongings had to be crammed into a 10×10 space and you had to be there at set times – regardless of whether you have to go get medical treatment, get food at a soup kitchen, access showers at the scant hours those are available, etc. Imagine if someone walked through your home and threw out everything they thought wasn’t needed and was “garbage”. 
  • In a dual public health emergency of the overdose crisis and COVID, forcing people to constantly move or risk having their belongings destroyed is especially harmful. Even in the normie world, having to move is considered a highly stressful event. The number of moves homeless people have gone through in the past two months is intense, adding to the stress of COVID, cumulative loss from community overdose deaths, etc. People are already working hard to survive – it shouldn’t be made harder.

What positive things would happen from the City suspending the anti-homeless provisions of the Parks bylaw? 

  • When people are able to stay where they feel safest and are not constantly having to move, they can start to stabilize and create self-governing communities where peers can look after each other. Peer care is always how marginalized people have survived, but right now that need is even more intense as there are very few service provider options.
  • When people are able to stay where they feel safest and not constantly having to move, it’s easier for service providers to find them. Service providers are working beyond capacity right now and can’t do constant mobile outreach to all of the new indoor and outdoor sites that have had to be created because the pre-existing shelters have reduced spaces to enable physical distancing (people are more at risk of COVID inside than they are outside).

What the City should do

  • Remember that people living outside are human beings who deserve to be treated with dignity and respect.
  • IMMEDIATELY take down their Parks Regulations Bylaw notices, publicly commit to complying with the United Nations protocols and directives regarding homeless people and encampments, and offer financial compensation to people whose belongings have been destroyed. Some things are irreplaceable but tents, sleeping bags, etc. must be restored immediately and in ways that respect homeless people’s autonomy to choose who provides these things and to get good quality replacements.
  • IMMEDIATELY suspend enforcement of any provisions of the Parks Regulations Bylaw relating to people sheltering outside.
  • Work with people living outside and advocates (including human rights organizations) to determine how to revise the Parks Regulations Bylaw to align with United Nations protocols and guidance notes. Only after this is concluded and the Bylaw properly aligned with human rights obligations should enforcement of the Bylaw provisions regarding sheltering in parks be reinstated.
  • If in future there are problems or concerns about sheltering in parks, as per United Nations protocols the City must address these in respectful ways, working with people living outside, and not threatening violence. The United Nations Protocol specifically identifies that there must be “meaningful engagement and effective participation of encampment residents” and sets out multiple conditions that governments are responsible to uphold. The City is currently failing to meet ALL of these.

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