Criminalizing homelessness solves nothing

This article originally appeared in the Vancouver Sun.

Maple Ridge is the latest B.C. municipality to find itself the unexpected and unwilling host of a homeless tent city. With a burgeoning human, health, and political quagmire now at hand, the city has an opportunity to set an important precedent for how municipalities in this country deal with a national housing crisis that has landed on their doorstep.

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As with similar tent cities that have arisen in the past two years in Vancouver, Abbotsford, and Surrey, a lack of accessible, safe, and affordable shelter and housing has been cited as the reason homeless people have begun erecting tents.

A review of shelters across the Lower Mainland reveals that emergency shelters are operating close to capacity every night. Some shelters try to put people on couches and floor mats just to keep pace with demand, while some shelters turn people away at 9 p.m. leaving the unlucky others with no indoor option for the night. It is no wonder so many people find themselves looking for a safe place to camp.

With nowhere else to go, camping together can be the safest option. Many people camp near the services they need to survive, and it’s at a tent city where they find community: people who will watch their possessions when they need to find food or a place to shower, provide life-saving first aid interventions, and protect one another from the violence that far too often targets people living on the street.

Maple Ridge city council is dealing with immense public pressure to resolve the situation, with residents demanding the tent city be dismantled immediately. A city panel has proposed shipping containers as a possible quick fix for sheltering the more than 60 people camping along Maple Ridge’s Cliff Ave. Providing alternative shelter to tents is one solution; ensuring that housing meets the needs of those on the streets so they remain housed is the best solution. Simply dismantling tent cities without providing safe alternatives, as some members of the public are demanding, is the worst approach, and no solution at all. Unfortunately, this is what many cities choose to do.

Municipal bylaws across the country prohibit people from sleeping in parks or arranging any kind of structure to protect themselves from the elements. What bylaws like this mean in practice is that people are forced to hide from authorities and those authorities are empowered to remove homeless people from the places they feel safe and to take away people’s basic survival structures.

Enforcing bylaws in a way that criminalizes people because they are homeless serves only to put their lives at greater risk. They disperse homeless people to less safe, less populous, less policed places and leave homeless people with few or no options for a place to lay down their head. A city’s No. 1 priority should be ensuring the safety of all of its residents. Enforcement does the opposite.

Bylaws and their enforcement look different in every city. In Vancouver, enforcement came in the form of an eviction notice served on campers residing in Oppenheimer Park, for violation of a bylaw prohibiting people from being in the park after 10 p.m. In Surrey, bylaw enforcement means twice-daily sweeps to dispose of people’s possessions, often while they are in line for food. An Abbotsford, a group of homeless people is taking the city and police to the province’s Supreme Court to protect themselves from bylaw enforcement that has resulted in slashed tents, confiscated possessions, and evictions from public spaces. Regardless of the differences in how the bylaws are enforced, they all serve to endanger the lives of homeless people by pushing them out of spaces where they feel relatively safe.

These tent cities lay bare one of our country’s deepest wounds: our failure to ensure safe, clean housing for all. While our federal and provincial governments make provisions for basic health care and education, they have failed to provide the linchpin to accessing those services — housing — for hundreds of thousands of people across the country. Instead, housing has become an issue for municipalities to deal with, often with disastrous results.

Until federal and provincial governments come to the table with money and a plan to address our housing crisis, we will continue to see these camps. Maple Ridge will not the last tent city this province and this country sees.

It could be the first where people aren’t criminalized and displaced just because they are homeless.