The day after the province’s May 20 eviction deadline for homeless people people still living at Topaz Park / Pandora Avenue, ‘victoria’ city council passed a weak motion brought by three councillors who have in the past been progressive. Councillor Sharmarke Dubow specifically raised concerns about homeless people’s safety and human rights, but the rest of Council didn’t listen to the many organizations and individuals who pointed out that the City’s approach thus far has been profoundly harmful, and who called for the City to align with United Nations guidance on government responses to homelessness.
That United Nations guidance is clear: no evictions / displacement of people living outside, no seizure of their belongings, meaningful involvement in decision-making that impacts their lives, and ensuring that homeless people have access to survival necessities. But Council ignored every piece of that, upholding a status quo that facilitates displacement, state theft of people’s belongings, exclusion of people who are homeless from decision making, and non-provision of such basics as drinking water and 24/7 bathroom access.
Council’s failure to give appropriate direction regarding survival sheltering has emboldened City staff and Bylaw officers to keep on imposing new and unworkable rules — as they did on May 14, and did again yesterday — and then crack down on homeless people who break those rules. In this piece we’ll look at Council’s May 21 decision and the aftermath.
COUNCIL’S MAY 21 DECISION
Here’s the motion that passed. We’ve highlighted the most problematic sections — but some of what is crappy is the silence on key issues.
1. That Council reaffirms the existing direction, consistent with advice of Public Health Officials to reduce the risk of transmission of Covid-19, of sheltering-in-place through deferred enforcement of the 7 am – 7 pm bylaw provision in locations where overnight sheltering is permitted (outside of Topaz and Pandora) until June 25, 2020.
2. That Council adopts the following Policy relating to regulation of sheltering-in-place in locations where overnight sheltering is permitted during the public health emergency until June 25, 2020:
a. That Council directs staff not to remove shelters and belongings that are abandoned or unoccupied until 72 hours after they have been tagged by a Bylaw Officer, and ensure that any notices are consistent with this policy.
b. That Council directs staff to store impounded items in a secure facility, for retrieval by the owner for up to thirty (30) days, to the extent that this policy is consistent with workplace safety requirements and the advice of local public heath authorities, and ensure that any notices are consistent with this policy.
3. Maintain and improve dialogue between the City of Victoria Bylaw Division, people living outside and the people who work with them regarding sheltering-in-place in locations where overnight sheltering is permitted, under the purview of the City Bylaw division, to mitigate unintended harms of City bylaws to those who are living outside.
4. That staff report to Council on June 25 with an update on sheltering in parks as well as a report from partners on opportunities for indoor sheltering options.
why council’s decision sucks
The focus on temporary non-enforcement of prohibition on daytime sheltering is a red herring. It makes it seem like the City is leaving people to peacefully shelter 24/7 — which is what they should be doing.
But what they are actually doing is:
- Cracking down on people who are in sites that aren’t allowed under the parks bylaw. The parks bylaw only allows sheltering in officially recognized parks, not on other types of grassy areas (even if those areas are out of the way and not harming anything or anyone). There at this point very few parks that the City will allow sheltering in, most of them are in neighbourhoods that are far from the few survival services that still exist, and most of them only have limited bathroom access. People have for 2 months been sheltering where they feel safest and can get their needs met, and until Council’s decision, Bylaw wasn’t being heavy-handed. But the day after Council’s decision, Bylaw started ramping up enforcement against people living on a grassy area backing onto a vacant (privately owned) lot. Now folks there and in another location that also isn’t a permissible “park” are being told they have to clear out.
- Making up new rules that further limit where people can camp — and imposing those rules retroactively. On May 26 the City put up pylons at MEEGAN (beaconhill) marking certain zones as “no go” areas even though people were already sheltering in those areas and have to go into those zones to access their belongings. They also posted a new map that identifies new areas of MEEGAN where people aren’t allowed to shelter – cutting out huge chunks of the park, again identifying places where people are already sheltering, and forcing further displacement of people who have already, in good faith, moved multiple times to where the City said they could go (but then changed its mind). This approach forces people to move another time into ever-shrinking spaces which is the opposite of what governments have been instructed to do around COVID prevention.
- Using guise of “ecological sensitivity” to push homeless people out. Apparently it’s not environmentally damaging for the City to have installed the following infrastructure at MEEGAN (beaconhill): paved roads and parking lots, ponds, bridges, two playgrounds, two water parks including one with a 15-foot-tall metal watering can, bandshell/stage, golf putting green, baseball diamond, cricket pitch, soccer field, tennis courts, lawn bowling area, petting zoo complete with screaming peacocks, or invasive bulbs that crowd out Indigenous camas. But it would supposedly be devastating to the park to have someone who is homeless live in a tent larger than 10×10 feet, or to have any handwashing stations, drinking water jugs, primary health care services, or anything else needed for survival.
- Upholding Bylaw seizure of tents and belongings for reasons other than “abandoment”. Council completely ignored the many new conditions in the May 14 City Notice that go beyond existing provisions and allow Bylaw officers to take people’s tents for reasons other than abandonment. By only addressing abandoned items Council’s given Bylaw their blessing to seize any tents larger than 10×10 feet, anything tied to a plant or park infrastructure, any tents that are used for something other than sleeping in (e.g., peer witnessing, or health care provision), anything too close to a tent, anything too far from a tent… the rules are ridiculous, unnecessary, and set people up to lose their shelter.
- Upholding Bylaw’s discretion to decide what is “abandoned”. Before the May 14 City Notice, under the parks bylaw any belongings that were seized by the state had to be made accessible within 6 hours and held for 30 days so the person the state stole them from could retrieve them. Already this was onerous and forced people to sleep outside with nothing if their belongings were seized after 11 AM (as the Bylaw office is only open regular business hours). But it did give people some way to get their stuff back. Now Council’s direction affirms it’s OK for people’s belongings to be destroyed until it can be confirmed that it’s safe to store them (no mention of whether it’s safe to leave people sheltering without a tent or sleeping bag). Worse still, they uphold the system of Bylaw getting to tag something as abandoned — putting the onus on homeless people to prove an item is not abandoned, and not setting out any way for people to affirm to Bylaw that a tagged item is still needed and in use. What are people with tagged items supposed to do, remove the tag? Post a note that it’s not been abandoned? None of this is clear.
- Continuing with 7 AM wake-ups under the guise of “welfare checks”. Under the 7-to-7 daytime sheltering provisions, Bylaw officers would wake people up at 7 AM and push them to start packing up and moving on. In some locations they are still doing these 7 AM wake-ups, even though they aren’t moving people on. This is a highly intrusive and punishing process. It’s not based on asking people what they feel keeps them well or safe, who they want to check on them, or when they want that to happen.
- Stalling on commitment to provide survival basics. The Council motion completely ignores the city’s obligations to ensure people have access to essential infrastructure. As pointed out in the United Nations National Protocol for Homeless Encampments in Canada, municipalities have specific obligations. It’s not enough to leave homeless people alone in peace (which the City should definitely start doing as a bare minimum), governments also need to make sure homeless people have access near where they’re living to the same survival necessities housed people can take for granted: bathrooms, showers, drinking water, garbage/recycling pickup, etc. The UN is clear that it’s a violation of human rights if government fails to ensure access to these basics. Yet the City still hasn’t done anything on this, more than two months after the COVID crisis started. Instead their motion stalls out for another month, waiting till June 25 to have any further action. The City seems to be crossing its fingers that BC Housing miraculously makes more permanent affordable housing available so there won’t be anyone left sleeping outside, even though for years there’s been 1500+ people here who are unsheltered or only have temporary shelter, and over 21,000 housed people in ‘victoria’ at risk of homelessness because their housing is in disrepair, overcrowded, or unaffordable.
- Continuing to shut homeless people out of decision-making. The United Nations National Protocol for Homeless Encampments in Canada explicitly states that people have the right to be meaningfully involved in decisions that affect their lives. It further provides a detailed list of all of the things municipalities are supposed to do. But the City isn’t doing any of these things. The City continues to “communicate” by unilaterally posting notices, a legalistic and dehumanizing approach. Staff haven’t been directed to talk with homeless people about what they want, find out what their needs are, or ask them how to set things up. We and other groups have repeatedly asked the City to commit to this kind of process but they keep stalling. How can they make good decisions without this information?
WHAT HAPPENS AFTER JUNE 25?
Council’s motion to have staff come back with a report again puts off important decisions that need to be made much sooner (like bathroom and drinking water access), and continues high uncertainty and tension for people who are living outside. What happens if people start to get settled and services start to get set up only to have it all shut down again in a few weeks (which is what happened at Topaz)? What happens on June 30 when the temporary government funding for two seasonal mats-on-the-floor shelters ends and more people are having to live outside?
In this critical period the City should be reaching out to people who are homeless, and groups that work with people who are homeless, to put together a serious plan for June 25. But the City is not making this commitment. Instead they’re doing what they always do: pour resources into enforcement rather than directing resources into useful and needed mechanisms for creative problem-solving.
what you can do
Council, City, and Bylaw needs to hear loud and clear that the current situation is unacceptable. And people living outside need to feel supported and cared about. We have lots of ideas about how to approach this from multiple angles. If you’re interested in working with us on this, please contact us.
Letters are most powerful when they’re in your own words. Below are some points you might want to consider including:
- Council’s May 21 motion on sheltering in parks, the City’s May 26 notice to people living in MEEGAN, and Bylaw’s crackdown on people sheltering outside are profoundly harmful. These actions by the City are causing huge stress and anxiety for people who have already been repeatedly forced to move over the past two months.
- The City should immediately direct Bylaw to suspend enforcement of all provisions of the Parks Bylaw relating to sheltering outside until June 25, as an emergency measure to stop further harm. People need to be able to shelter-in-place where they feel safest, and to have some stability and breathing room.
- The City should publicly commit to aligning all further responses with recent direction from the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Right to Housing, including the National Protocol for Homeless Encampments in Canada, COVID-19 Guidance Note: Protecting those living in Homelessness, and COVID-19 Guidance Note: Protecting Residents of Informal Settlements.
- To guide the June 25 staff report, the City should ask people who are living outside how they want to be part of that report process.
- As part of determining what to do on June 25, the City needs to 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 be reconsidered.