400% increase to fines punish homelessness

Late last year Pivot brought a lawsuit against the city on behalf of a homeless man named Clarence Taylor, who was ticketed for sleeping outside. Through Clarence’s case, we are challenging a set of three City of Vancouver bylaws which together prohibit homeless people from legally sleeping outdoors and sheltering themselves in any area of public property, whether in a doorway, under a bridge, or in a park.

For years we have been asking the City to up-date their bylaws to reflect the BC Supreme Court’s Adams decision. In that case, the Court struck down as unconstitutional a Victoria bylaw, which prevented homeless people from sheltering themselves when sleeping in City parks because of a lack of shelter spaces — a decision that was later affirmed by the BC Court of Appeal 

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Using the law as a catalyst for positive social change, Pivot Legal Society works to improve the lives of marginalized communities.

The day we launched our suit, Mayor Robertson released a response stating:

"Being homeless is not a crime. I have asked the City Manager and Chief of Police, once they have reviewed the details of the lawsuit, to provide me with current information on bylaw tickets issued to people who may be homeless. The City is committed to ensuring that our bylaws are enforced appropriately and are not punishing those who are homeless…our goal with all bylaws is to strike a balance, and they should not be punitive towards vulnerable citizens..."

Unfortunately, last week we learned that City staff, rather than reviewing the constitutionality of these punitive laws, is actually recommending a 400% increase to the fines attached to them. The proposed increase would mean that people ticketed under these bylaws, including homeless people like Clarence, would be required to pay a fine of up to $10,000 up from a maximum of $2000.

These bylaws and the fines associated with them criminalize poverty and push homeless people into dark corners of the City where they are at greater risk of assault and exposure. That the City would make this move at this time is particularly concerning in light of the fact that the recently released Report of the Missing Women Commission of Inquiry specifically states in recommendation 5.9:

That the City of Vancouver and the Vancouver Police Department take proactive measures to reduce the number of court warrants issued for minor offences by…reducing the number of tickets issued and charges laid for minor offences.

These bylaws – and the increased penalties associated with this amendment – do the exact opposite. They unfairly and discriminatorily criminalize people for being homeless and poor. These proposed increases to fines for bylaw infractions also highlight both the ridiculous waste of public resources involved in issuing tickets to homeless people and a complete lack of compassion for the impacts of fines for homeless people who will never be in a position to pay them.

While there may be justification for increasing maximum fines for wealthy property owners who flout City regulations, the failure to recognize that homeless and low-income people are caught under these bylaws – whether intentionally or not – demonstrates a lack of compassion and accommodation for the City’s most marginalized communities. The City cannot plead ignorance of this issue given our pending lawsuit.

Tomorrow night I will be at a City Council meeting explaining the impacts these laws have on some of Vancouver's most vulnerable citizens. You can help make sure these draconian increases do not go forward by sending an email to Mayor and Council in order to voice your opposition to these increases and urge the City to stop using bylaws to criminalize poverty. 

Please feel free to use any part of this blog in your email to Mayor and Council