Lessons from Abbotsford - How not to treat homeless people

Lately Abbotsford has become an unwilling media darling on how not to deal with homelessness.  Abbotsford’s city management and police department have apologized for using some of the most inhumane policies and practices to deal with their homeless community members we have ever seen in BC. These individual acts speak to a longstanding policy of aggressive NIMBYism that has characterized Abbotsford’s approach to addressing the needs of its most marginalized residents.

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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.

For those of you who have not been following the unfolding drama in BC’s 5th largest municipality, here are the highlights. In May 2013, Scott Bernstein, Pivot lawyer, filed a lawsuit on behalf of drug users seeking access to harm reduction health care services in the city.  Abbotsford’s zoning bylaws currently make certain key health care services for drug users unavailable throughout the city.

In early June, Abbotsford’s city manager gave the go-ahead to city crews to dump chicken manure all over an area where homeless Abbotsforders camp.  Their not-so-subtle ‘move along’ message was neither well received nor was it effective.  There was immediate backlash from the people affected and their advocates and considerable negative media attention. Perhaps most importantly, ‘these people’ have not ‘moved along’ because Abbotsford’s punitive, not-in-my-backyard policies are based on a flawed understanding of homelessness, drug dependence, mental illness, and the relationship between individuals struggling with these issues and the broader community.    City management and the mayor’s office had to spend days apologizing, back peddling and literally shoveling poop rather than spending that time and those resources supporting their homeless community members and employing policies that may in fact help solve the homelessness problem in Abbotsford.

This isn’t the end of the tale. In a municipality seemingly unable to break its pattern of poor decision-making, police officers are now being investigated for allegedly slashing people’s tents and soaking their belongings in bear spray to the point where none of those possessions are salvageable.  It seems that once the city failed to move these people along, the police took matters into their own hands.  In what would appear to be a highly questionable use of police power and resources, Abbotsford has once again tried to cattle prod their most vulnerable and marginalized residents out of town rather than trying to solve the problem in a principled and effective way.

If the leadership in Abbotsford had been paying attention to the world around them they would have already known that using manure, harassment and property destruction as a way to chase the homeless away is both completely unacceptable and ineffective.  They needed only look to their neighbours in Surrey who failed in their attempt to move people away from a drop-in centre using chicken manure 2009, or perhaps to Nashville, Tennessee where an officer was demoted for what was described as a “Freddy Krueger” style slashing of a homeless man’s tent earlier in 2013.  Furthermore, they could have asked St Petersburg, Florida how their campaign of tent and property destruction worked out.  By all accounts, it did nothing to help solve their housing problem, it galvanized and united the homeless community against the city and police and culminated in the community threatening to “sue ’em” for the destruction of their property.

Rather than learn from these previous disrespectful, destructive failures of policing and city policy, it seems like Abbotsford is trying to go back in time to pick from the worst of the worst.  

What’s most troubling is that the Abbotsford virus is contagious.  One week after Abbotsford was caught in their chicken manure plot, Port Coquitlam tried the very same filthy trick. While Port Coquitlam bylaw manager admits that this was “not the right thing to do”, he showed no sign of understanding what it means to be homeless, stating that, “It’s never going to be OK to camp on city land.”

These punitive approaches to homelessness are far too common and highly destructive.  In Vancouver, while not going so far as to use manure to move people along, the city continues to defend bylaws that make it illegal to sleep outside or to protect oneself from the elements with a tent or even a cardboard box.  The threat of a ticket under these bylaws is an effective tool for Vancouver police to shuffle homeless people around and force them out of the public eye, possibly into much more dangerous spaces.  It is not an effective tool for ending homelessness.  Vancouver has chosen not to change these bylaws, which violate the human rights of homeless Vancouverites and, as a result, Pivot was forced to file a lawsuit on behalf of the homeless to have these bylaws struck down in court.

What is clear in all of these cases is that the leadership in many city halls and police headquarters do not understand their obligation to respect the human rights of all people.  They certainly have not grasped their obligation to protect their most vulnerable and marginalized people.  Ally Fogg of The Guardian said it perfectly in his recent article: “homeless people are not "negative impacts" either on the public's peace of mind or the public purse, they are the living victims of economic policy, ideology and political choices.”  Our governments have an to obligation help, an obligation which they are failing at woefully.

Rather than rehashing why the tactics being employed in Abbotsford are totally unacceptable or arguing about bylaws that criminalize homelessness, it would be nice to spend this time actually engaging in systemic reform that will make a difference.  Last week, the Homeless Hub and Canadian Alliance to End Homelessness released a comprehensive report card on the state of homelessness in Canada.  The report proposes realistic recommendations and drives home the point that we can in fact solve this problem for the better of everyone in Canada.

It seems many of our leaders have a long way to go in meeting their obligations to build communities which respect and value all community members.  My hope is that the litigation we do now and the media attention that comes with scandals, like the ones in Abbotsford, will move our leaders away from repeating the same disrespectful and destructive practices and will inspire them to come to the table with communities to create solutions that will raise the bottom line for everyone.