Ticketing poor people solves nothing

In 2012, Louise Lagimodiere was ticketed by Vancouver police for illegally selling items on East Hastings Street, where she vends a couple of days of week to earn an income. 

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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.

Louise is 72-years-old. Her only source of income has been the $530 monthly pension she receives from CPP and OAS, which barely covers the $455 monthly rent for the single room she has rented in the Downtown Eastside since 2000. When all of her housing costs are subtracted Louise has barely $2 a day to survive.

On this occasion she had been given food from a friend that she couldn’t eat, and had placed the bag briefly on the sidewalk in front of another vendor to show its contents and see if he wanted to make a trade. She was fined $250.

On September 23, the B.C. provincial court rendered its decision on our constitutional challenge to City of Vancouver bylaws prohibiting this type of street vending. The judge upheld the bylaw.

Our clients, who included Louise, were devastated. The decision is a huge blow to low-income people just like them who rely on street vending to make ends meet.

In his decision, Judge William Yee concluded that people like Louise have “meaningful alternatives” to vending on the street. He denied the challenge and our argument that section 66 of the Street and Traffic bylaw infringes on the constitutional right to the security of person, despite evidence from the City of Vancouver itself that recognizes street vending in the DTES is done for the purpose of survival.

If there was a single takeaway from this experience, it is that the reality of life in the Downtown Eastside – and for anyone living in poverty, for that matter – is widely misunderstood.

Louise’s experience is not an exception. All four of the defendants we represented had similar stories – they are residential school survivors, disabled industrial workers, recovering drug users. They do not feel comfortable asking for handouts, and vending is the only safe option they have to earn an income, meager though it may seem to outsiders. None of them sold stolen goods.

While the Judge concluded that all four of our defendants had alternatives to vending on the street, when it came to sentencing a very different message was delivered.

Rather than enforce the $250 fines, the justice reduced each fine to just $1, without conditions. When he reduced the fines, he stated that given their situation the defendants would likely have to continue vending.

We disagree with the decision to uphold these bylaws. They unfairly target low-income people, with the effect of prohibiting street vending as a means of survival income generation.

At Pivot we have increasingly realized that the various bylaws that punish street vending, sleeping on public property, and countless other behaviours associated with social condition are a part of a larger regime that criminalizes poverty across North America.

Our cities should never be in the business of policing and criminalizing poverty.

Ideally, no one would ever have to rely on street vending to earn an income. But until there is a livable income for all, it is the city’s responsibility to ensure that everyone has the right to work.

Despite the provincial court decision, we will continue to fight for the rights of people like Louise to create meaning social change in the way municipalities treat their most vulnerable citizens.

What Happens Now?

Here’s what the vending decision means:

  1. Pivot is looking at the possibility of an appeal. Since the decision was made in bylaw court the defendants have a right to appeal to a higher court, where most constitutional challenges are heard. Given the very brief reasoning given by the Judge for his decision, and the comments at sentencing, this may be necessary.
  2. Residents of the Downtown Eastside will continue to be fined for selling possessions on the street. The City’s Street Vending Bylaw, which says that individuals must pay at least $800 for a permit to legally vend, will still be out of reach for anyone looking to vend for their survival. 
  3. The City will be under renewed pressure to create a space where DTES street vendors can legally sell their possessions seven days a week. Talks to open up the abandoned lot at 68 E. Hastings to street vending have continually stalled, and there appears to be no existing plan to expand the existing Sunday Market to operate on other days.
  4. Municipalities will continue to criminalize poverty. While we wait for a full-time space to open, just as we are waiting for enough adequate and safe shelter and housing space to open so the homeless do not have to sleep outside, the criminalization of poverty will continue. Low-income residents will face fines they cannot pay, and the potential of jail time will loom over their heads if they do not appear in court or breach conditions placed on them not to engage in survival behaviour.