City of Victoria wants pretty parks, so it may make life hard for homeless people

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(Photo credit: www.victoria.ca, Reeson Park, undated)

Apparently, grass and vegetation are more important than the dignity and safety of people who are homeless. That’s the conclusion one could reasonably draw from the absurd bylaw amendment proposed by the City of Victoria—one that would impose time limits on park visitors such that individuals who shelter in parks would be required to uproot and relocate their belongings multiple times each day. While the bylaw change may seem to apply equally to all, the reality is that its enforcement will target homeless people and discriminate against those struggling with poverty.

The proposed change would limit the length of time a person could remain in one location in a public park to six hours. Regulating public space in this manner will force people who are homeless to collect their belongings and relocate multiple times a day—an imposition that is especially difficult for those who carry all of their possessions on their back or in a shopping cart. Even worse off will be those struggling with physical disability and illness. Effectively forcing a vulnerable population into an ever-transient existence exacerbates the harms and challenges they already face braving the elements 24-hours a day.

Currently, people in need of shelter in Victoria can set up a tent in a park and rest overnight provided that they pack up their belongings by 7 a.m.

When people wake up in the morning, all we are asking is that they move at least a hundred metres from the spot that they have camped overnight to allow that piece of earth to kind of revive,” Mayor Lisa Helps told CBC News.

This is the same rationale underpinning so many ill-conceived bylaws that further displace, destabilize, and marginalize an already vulnerable population by forcing them to move every six hours. It assumes homeless people have a place to go and the ability to move there, and betrays a lack of understanding regarding the realities of life on the street.

Housing Justice for all.

Given the overdose crisis British Columbia currently faces, the City of Victoria’s timing couldn’t be worse as many of the people most affected by the proposed bylaw are people who use drugs. Requiring a population facing greater risk of overdose to move everyday means that in addition to the harms they will experience through forced relocation, outreach, health care, and paramedics will have a much harder time finding them should they need life-saving intervention. This policy of displacement could be fatal.

Cities should be enacting laws and policies that respect the human rights of people experiencing homelessness, recognizing they must have a place to sleep, a way to shelter themselves from the elements, and freedom from constant displacement. Instead, the City of Victoria is taking the opposite approach with this disingenuous attempt to maintain the integrity of their parks—a vanity project concealing ugly consequences for those living in poverty.

Consider the various scenarios in which individuals use parks for more than six hours: picnics, sports tournaments, weddings, and fundraising events. These are just a few. Are we to believe bylaw officers will enforce the rules in these situations? Highly unlikely. Can you imagine uniformed staff ticketing a family sitting on their picnic mat enjoying a meal on a sunny afternoon? The far more likely scenario is that this bylaw will only be used as an enforcement tool against those who are a visible reminder of failed government policy. Instead of dealing with the causes of poverty and homelessness, the municipal government is figuratively sweeping the issue under the rug by literally forcing people out of public space.

City councillors will meet on Thursday to discuss the proposed bylaw amendment. You can write to Victoria’s mayor and council at the addresses below and tell them what you think of this highly problematic and stigmatizing policy approach. 

Pivot Legal Society takes the rights of people experiencing homelessness very seriously and believes in compassionate policy that helps people instead of further marginalizing them. You can take action and help advocate for homes, not displacement, by making a gift to Pivot Legal Society today. Pivot is a grassroots organization that relies on donors like you to stand with us and create meaningful social change throughout Canada. Thank you!