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British Columbia Penticton’s bylaw to fine people sleeping on sidewalks criticized for targeting the homeless

A bylaw amendment banning people from sitting or lying down on some downtown Penticton streets over the summer is being criticized for criminalizing the homeless and leaving them with nowhere to go.

Penticton City Council voted 5-2 this week in favour of a staff recommendation to amend the Good Neighbour Bylaw to prohibit sitting or lying down along certain sections of three streets, totalling about 17 per cent of the downtown core. The restriction will remain in place through to Sept. 30 and violators risk a $100 fine.

Anna Cooper, a lawyer with the Pivot Legal Society, said the bylaw changes “clearly target” homeless people and others who rely on public spaces to survive.

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“It sends a very strong signal to low-income people in that community that they are not wanted in the downtown core,” she said.

The amendments come after a reported increase in complaints from downtown businesses and community members relating to “social nuisance” in the area over the past year, according to a staff report prepared by bylaw services supervisor Tina Siebert.

Issues include “smoking near doorway entrances, obstruction of sidewalks for the purpose of loitering/panhandling, camping on city sidewalks, increased abandoned property in public spaces [and] persons occupying vacant store fronts,” Ms. Siebert wrote, and all detract “from the vibrant and positive business and community environment demanded by our businesses and residents.”

Councillor Julius Bloomfield voted against the amendments, saying it is not enough to legislate people away. A 62-unit temporary modular housing project expected to open at the end of summer will help alleviate some pressures, he said, but emergency shelters closing for the spring and a lack of other resources leaves council with no place to immediately direct the homeless.

“Legislating them off of the downtown streets just means pushing them into other neighbourhoods – residential neighbourhoods, or business neighbourhoods or parks,” Mr. Bloomfield said. “We’re not dealing with the issue; we’re just dealing with the symptoms.”

Councillor Campbell Watt, who also voted against the amendments, said he felt uncomfortable with the idea of pushing people out.

“If we’re asking anybody to not be sitting on our streets, or lying on our streets, I sure wish we had somewhere for them to go,” he said. “I don’t think we’re suggesting an area for them to be instead.”

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Ms. Cooper, the Pivot lawyer, said that Penticton’s bylaw regime sets out a series of escalating fines, including fines for late payment and repeat offences.

“Ultimately, these fines leave a person liable to be brought before the Provincial Court where they face further fines and even jail,” she said. “We know that unpaid fines such as these can also have collateral consequences in terms of credit ratings and access to government services.”

Other jurisdictions have attempted to address homelessness through legislation before. The City of Abbotsford, for example, had passed bylaws prohibiting people from erecting temporary shelters and sleeping in city parks.

A group of homeless people challenged the bylaws and won. In October, 2015, B.C. Supreme Court Chief Justice Christopher Hinkson ruled that such restrictions violate Section 7 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedom, which ensures the right to security of the person, and said that there is a legitimate need for people to shelter and rest outdoors when no indoor shelter spaces are available.

Penticton city staff said it sought a legal review to vet “for any potential Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms scrutiny.” Ms. Cooper said the bylaw could still potentially violate the Charter depending on how all other municipal bylaws intersect to exclude homeless people from the totality of public space.

The amendment will be back before council for final approval on June 4.

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