Action: Write City Council – keep letting people shelter in parks 24/7

In mid-March when the COVID public health emergency was declared, the city finally stopped enforcing one of the most harmful provisions of its Parks Regulations Bylaw: the ban on daytime sheltering in parks. This was a big relief. People have been able to keep their tents up 24/7 in areas where sheltering is permitted, rest as needed, and have some stability.

But on June 25th, ‘victoria’ city council is reconsidering whether to reinstate enforcement of the provision of the Parks Regulation Bylaw that bans daytime sheltering. If Council directs bylaw officers to start enforcing this provision again, it would mean that every morning at 7 AM people would get woken up by bylaw officers (accompanied by police), and forced to pack up their tents and belongings. They wouldn’t be able to set up again till 8 PM. This means people would be spending hours each day taking down and setting up again, unable to have shelter in the day, and unable to rest or self-isolate if sick.

It’s important that this non-enforcement continue, as daily displacement is always harmful. It would be especially harmful right now:

  • People are hurting from recent police violence against Indigenous and Black people across Turtle Island (including Chantel Moore who is the relation of a number of people here, including Indigenous people in the street community), surge in overdose deaths in April and May, and the general strain of the past 3 months. People’s stress right now is intense.
  • Because of ongoing COVID service restrictions, there are even fewer options than usual open for people to go to during the day — so fewer places people can get protection from the weather and also fewer places where people can store belongings. Having no option for shelter 7 AM to 8 PM is a long time to be stuck out in the rain, wind, and sun. Before COVID this was a bad situation but at least there were some daytime options like soup kitchens, community centres, libraries, social service agencies, crashing with friends living in low-income housing, etc. Right now most of those spaces are closed completely (including housing units closed to all guests), or open only a few hours with reduced numbers of people let inside. And the one storage space (at Our Place) is completely closed because of COVID.
  • With COVID restrictions having shut down most fixed-site survival services, street-serving organizations are just starting to get outreach and delivery of survival basics figured out. All of those new systems will be destroyed if people are forced to take down their tents and move every morning.

sending letters

You can reach the Mayor and Council at the following addresses: 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 (better to email them individually than use the generic inbox for Mayor and Council as emails to the generic inbox are first funnelled through city staff and will take longer to get to Mayor and Council). 

If you can, please send your letter by Monday June 22 so councillors can read them before their June 25 decision (but letters can go in any time before Thursday June 25). Sample points to consider in a letter are available, or if you want to write your own from scratch, go for it!

We’ve done a backgrounder below explaining the current situation with the Parks Regulations Bylaw. It’s quite detailed because we wanted to make sure if you want to work on this that you have full info about what’s going on. If you’re maxed out and can’t read it, you can skip to the ideas for points to include in a letter.

Unhoused people can still have homes…nobody should be made homeless at all, let alone every morning

BACKGROUND: how did things get to this point?

The City of ‘victoria’ Parks Regulations Bylaw has been a problem for a long time. It criminalizes homelessness and subjects people to a huge list of rules that are unworkable, then punishes people for not being able to comply. It’s been used to threaten people living outside, take their belongings, subject them to daily wake-up calls and move-alongs, and otherwise hurt people. For more than 12 years many people and organizations have tried to change it — politically and legally. But the City has at best grudgingly agreed to what minimal constitutional rights the ‘canadian’ colonial courts will recognize. Even though the current balance of power on Council is mostly progressives, still they have refused to change their approach.

When the COVID pandemic was declared in March 2020, that was a scary moment for a lot of people — including unhoused people who had no way to physically distance, access handwashing, etc. One good thing is that in March/April 2020, Bylaw officers backed off of enforcement of the parks bylaw, and mostly ignored people camping outside Topaz/Pandora. It’s unclear whether this was a direction from above, or a decision by the Bylaw Division on their own initiative (not taking direction from Council). Either way, they decided to not roust people at 7 AM every day and force them to move along. That was positive and had a good impact on people’s lives, to be able to shelter-in-place, and largely without interference or surveillance.

This started to change in May. It’s not clear if this change happened because the province’s April 25 enforcement order emboldened Bylaw officers to crack down, some people started leaving Topaz/Pandora and camping elsewhere (so numbers started growing in some parks), or the situation at COVID didn’t turn out to (locally) be the health emergency that was first feared.

Whatever the reasons, in early May Bylaw officers started going to MEEGAN (‘beaconhill’) and hassling campers there, and denying that was happening. Then they started throwing campers’ belongings away, and denying they were doing that and saying they were only throwing away garbage. 

On Thursday May 14 the City significantly upped the ante by posting a notice at MEEGAN identifying that the provision banning daytime sheltering is the only piece of the parks bylaw suspended right now and that they are still actively enforcing all the regular messed up provisions…plus adding a few bonus new harmful rules (e.g., identifying specific maximum size of tent, only one tent per family unit, must be in tent at set times to confirm it’s occupied or they can chuck it, etc.). Multiple organizations, including human rights advocacy experts, contacted Council expressing concern about this and pointing out that some of the new rules were likely a violation of constitutional rights (and definitely a violation of human rights agreements Canada has signed onto).

Council ignored the request to rescind the May 14 notice and direct the Bylaw Division to back off, and instead on May 21 passed a motion supporting Bylaw officers exercising their discretion. That decision has since resulted in harsher imposition of the rules, including eviction of people sheltering in locations considered “off-side” of the parks bylaw — even though people in those locations weren’t blocking anything and those locations were near the few survival services that remain open (with reduced hours/capacity). Council insistence on bylaw enforcement over people’s health is very discouraging, especially from a Council that is supposedly largely progressives.

At that May 21 meeting Council did affirm their support for the existing “deferred enforcement” of the part of the parks bylaw that prohibits daytime sheltering in parks. Council directed that non-enforcement to continue till June 25, when they would reconsider. As part of their reconsideration they directed City staff to 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.

We aren’t sure who these “partners” are, as Council has repeatedly refused to engage with organizations doing on-the-ground work. Council also hasn’t responded to a letter sent to them June 4 from homeless people living in two locations, despite their May 21 commitment to “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”. 

Council’s suggestion that problems can be resolved by “dialogue” between the Bylaw Division, homeless people, and service organizations misses the point. The main problem isn’t how Bylaw officers do their job (although yes, some of those officers abuse their power and are cruel). Just like the problem of police violence isn’t about a few bad cops but rather about the system of policing being inherently violent, the municipal approach of using law enforcement as a response to homelessness is inherently violent. The change that’s needed won’t come from dialogue with the head of Bylaw, but rather from a change to the bylaw — that’s a change that has to come from Council.

POINTS TO CONSIDER INCLUDING IN A LETTER

Letters are most powerful when they’re in your own words, rather than a generic sample letter. We’ve put together a Google doc with sample points to consider if you want to use these, or if you want to write your own from scratch, please do!

If any questions please feel free to contact us.

One thought on “Action: Write City Council – keep letting people shelter in parks 24/7

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