New regulations preventing people from panhandling, sitting on sidewalks or sleeping in recreational vehicles and public spaces are making their way through B.C.’s suburbs and small communities, as those areas see increases in homelessness.
Maple Ridge, a suburb of Metro Vancouver, is the latest to join the movement this week, with a new bylaw prohibiting “aggressive” panhandling, including asking people in their cars for money, asking more than once or asking in groups of three or more. The new bylaw also has provisions for fining people who sit or lie on the street in a way that impedes pedestrians.
That's just the latest.
In Salmon Arm, a bucolic community of about 20,000 on the shores of Shuswap Lake, the city passed a similar anti-panhandling bylaw in July. Penticton, a city in the Okanagan wine region, created a new bylaw in May prohibiting sitting or sleeping on the sidewalk. Vancouver’s biggest suburb, Surrey, last month saw its council vote to ban people from sleeping in recreational vehicles.
But it’s not happening without provoking opposition. Many of these bylaws have been criticized by local residents, poverty groups and, as of this week, the Housing Minister. They worry this will create even more fear, reduce chances for homeless people to connect with other citizens and make life more dangerous for them.
This is all happening as the kind of homelessness that used to be mostly concentrated in inner-city Vancouver has spread throughout the province.
“Homelessness is starting to impact rural communities,” said Dawn Dunlop, the executive director of the Canadian Mental Health Association branch in Salmon Arm. “Five years ago, people would say there is none here. But it’s not so hidden now. We have camps now, mostly on the sides of the highway, that we didn’t have before.”
Homeless camps have also appeared in many suburban areas that have never seen visible homelessness before.
The current proliferation of new rules echoes the backlash that British Columbia saw in the early 2000s, after the province’s social-housing program was dramatically downsized by the then-Liberal government, welfare was restricted and homelessness numbers began to soar. Vancouver, in particular, went through several years of turmoil over how to deal with the number of people on the street.
The province brought in the Safe Streets Act in 2004, making it one of only two provinces in the country with legislation aimed at giving cities the ability to fine people for panhandling or other kinds of unwelcome behaviour by poor and homeless people in public spaces.
But some municipalities now are saying that law didn’t go far enough and they are bringing in even tougher rules about behaviour in public spaces.
The new bylaws have prompted support from many business groups in those communities.
“Clients have stopped going to certain businesses in certain areas,” said Ken Holland, president of the Maple Ridge Chamber of Commerce. “We’re just trying to make it safer for everyone.”
Opponents to the new bylaw acknowledge cities have been put in a difficult position because of a lack of support for housing and other services from other governments, but they say the new bylaws aren’t the answer.
“I’ve been clear with communities in these situations, like with Penticton, when they passed a similar bylaw in the summer, about my concerns that approaches like these don’t provide a true solution to the challenge of homelessness,” said Housing Minister Selina Robinson in an e-mailed statement to The Globe and Mail Thursday.
“Instead, I’ve urged them to work with our government on long-term solutions like building the homes with supports people need to move forward. The response has been encouraging.”
Pivot Legal Society, a Vancouver-based legal advocacy group, has taken up the battle in several communities.
“The municipalities are being left to deal with the crises caused by other governments. But now their solution is to disappear [the homeless] rather than explore why. So they’re being even more stigmatized,” Pivot’s manager of community education Meenakshi Mannoe said.
Vernon city council looked at banning the use of shopping carts in public places, but that was halted in early September after Pivot Legal Society and the BC Civil Liberties Association said it would be a violation of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and city administration agreed.
“One of the biggest risks is that it’s creating a further divide that reduces their ability to be part of the community,” said Katherine McParland, the executive director of A Way Home Kamloops.
But the new measures are not likely to disappear soon. Those who’ve put them in place say they’re working.
Salmon Arm Mayor Alan Harrison said, although an official review of the program won’t be finished until later this month, he believes it is working as intended.
And he doesn’t think the city is likely to roll it back, given what they’ve seen what happens in other cities that have seen surges of panhandling and homelessness.
“If you act after the problem is very, very large, it’s hard to get away from it.”