Fighting city bylaws that criminalize poor people

Next week, Pivot will be back in court representing homeless campers in Oppenheimer Park.

They’re challenging an injunction sought by Vancouver’s Parks Board that would, if successful, lead to the eviction of more than 200 homeless people from the park, where many have lived since July. The order would give city workers the right to dismantle their tents and remove their possessions. Anyone resisting could be arrested.
While the City of Vancouver has said they are working hard to find temporary shelter spaces for all those living in the park, not nearly enough spaces are available. And for many of the campers, the shelter that has opened up – in many cases nothing more than a mat on the floor lying next to dozens of other people – is a worse option than sleeping in a park.
To dissolve the camp under the auspices of safety concerns is a backwards logic. Dispersing people from the park now would push many people back into obscurity in our alleys and doorways, all less safe and more isolated places. The park is no one’s idea of an ideal home, but at least in the park there is a sense of protection and community.
Had we not won an adjournment of the injunction order this week, hundreds of these people would likely have already been evicted under threat of arrest.
We don’t think this is a good use of city bylaws.
Sadly, the situation at Oppenheimer Park is another in a long list of examples of how municipalities are using bylaws to criminalize the most vulnerable members of our communities.
Last week, the B.C. provincial court rendered its decision on our constitutional challenge to the street vending bylaws in Vancouver. For our clients, selling goods on the street is often the only safe and practical option they have to earn an income. It is a matter of survival.
When enforced, as they were with our clients, these bylaws can lead to $250 fines, an enormous amount when you consider that social assistance or pensions are just barely double that monthly. Despite the fact that we know the VPD unfairly targets low-income people (95% of all street vending tickets are given out in the Downtown Eastside), the judge upheld the bylaw.
These bylaws are preventing people from being able to make efforts to lift themselves out of poverty. Instead, they push people further to the margins of society.
Cities are able to enact and enforce laws that criminalize poverty in large part because our senior levels of government have failed to address the root causes that lead to poverty in the first place. Municipalities are left to fend for themselves, in many cases with devastating outcomes.
In Abbotsford, inadequate shelter space has led to tent cities just like the one at Oppenheimer Park. The city responded to these camps first by dumping chicken manure on one site, then by enforcing an injunction that evicted people from Jubilee Park, sending them to the streets without safe shelter just four days before Christmas.
The enforcement of these unconstitutional and inhumane bylaws will not go unchallenged.
We learned this week that the B.C. Supreme Court will hear a lawsuit brought by the BC/Yukon Association of Drug War Survivors against the City of Abbotsford that would recognize access to safe shelter as a basic human right. Abbotsford fought to have the case dismissed. They would rather use bylaws to fight homelessness than come up with meaningful housing solutions.
In both cities, the goal is the same: there must be meaningful housing and income options for those left with no other choice than to live in and use public spaces. For people living in a tent at Oppenheimer Park, they need more time to find a place the live, and the city needs more time to ensure those places exist. Until then, the camp must stay, or we risk putting people’s lives in danger.
With municipal elections across the province next month, now is an opportune time for each and every one of us to demand those seeking public office to stop criminalizing poverty and start working towards solutions.
DJ Larkin, Housing Campaigner
Douglas King, Police Accountability Campaigner