Nicholas Blomley is a professor of geography at Simon Fraser University. Alexandra Flynn is an associate professor at the University of British Columbia’s Allard School of Law. Marie-Eve Sylvestre is a dean and full professor at the University of Ottawa’s Faculty of Law.
The official story of Vancouver’s recent “decampment” of homeless people, who had been huddled in tents along Hastings Street, is that the city was not targeting people – it was regulating the presence of physical structures on the sidewalk. The city relied on the legal powers outlined in its Streets and Traffic Bylaw to remove “any structure, object, or substance” deemed to be an obstruction to the “free use” of the walkway. In other words, it wasn’t personal. But this purportedly impersonal use of a bylaw has had unjust, traumatizing, and unproductive effects on the people who had their belongings removed.
Up until 1972, it was a Criminal Code offence to be poor in public in Canada. Thankfully, then-minister of justice Otto Lang argued that the repeal of inequitable vagrancy laws was necessary to “attain greater fairness … as applied to the privileged and to those who are less privileged, to the rich and the poor.” Reforms were also premised on the view that municipalities, like Vancouver, were best positioned to regulate their public spaces.
Unlike vagrancy laws, city regulations are meant to be impersonal and, in theory, applied to all equally. The reality, of course, is that city bylaws fall more heavily on those who have few alternative options. The recent police action in Vancouver is one extreme manifestation of a long-standing practice of “street sweeps” in the Downtown Eastside. Routinely, city cleanup crews seize homeless people’s belongings against their will. Vital survival gear is destroyed, as well as irreplaceable items – ashes of loved ones, photo albums. Baby shoes.
The harms of these actions have long been voiced by Downtown Eastside advocacy groups, but the seizure of homeless people’s belongings happens all across Canada. Homeless people have no doors that lock or secure places to safeguard their things, and because they don’t have the legal powers that most of us take for granted, their possessions are controlled by those who control the spaces they use, whether private landlords, bylaw officers, or shelter operators.
Our research has revealed the ways in which these belongings are stolen, legally and illegally, by private and state actors in multiple, overlapping settings. Our interviews with homeless people show the devastating effects of seizure. For one, it makes vulnerable people more precarious. Losing items like ID cards, medication, harm-reduction supplies, and winter clothing puts people at risk. One homeless person told us that on the surface, it’s just stuff. But it’s stuff that they needed to survive.
It can have ruinous and deeply stigmatizing personal consequences as well. Our belongings connect us to memories, identities and loved ones. To lose them is to be denied selfhood. One individual told us that without official identification, they felt as though they didn’t count as an actual member of society, as though they didn’t matter. To have one’s belongings taken by others, as one person said, makes people feel disrespected, as though others think they are less than, and thus undeserving of their own personal effects.
Seizure also forces homeless people to make brutal decisions that can put them at heightened risk. Some told us that they elected not to access vital health services because their belongings might be taken, or that they avoid short-term shelters because of rampant theft and limits on what they can bring with them. We also learned that few remedies exist for people to contest the seizure of their belongings or to recover them.
We also spoke to those who regulate homeless people’s possessions. We established that it’s highly discretionary, often driven by racist, patronizing and stigmatizing assumptions about which belongings have value and which should be discarded. A disproportionate number of homeless people are Indigenous, and possessions that have been stolen and destroyed are often of cultural importance, such as tobacco, objects for smudging, and ceremonial tents. Just as colonizers sought to “civilize” Indigenous people by imposing the adoption of “appropriate” relationships to property, many of the rationales used by state officials to get rid of homeless people’s belongings echo colonial arguments – that the state knows best which objects have value.
For most of us, control over our belongings is taken for granted. When cities regulate belongings, they regulate people – particularly poor people. As a homeless person in Surrey, B.C., told us, the real issue isn’t so much about the ownership of belongings, as it is about the disrespect homeless people face when their things are taken away. The same individual described having her things taken away as akin to a little piece of herself dying. When personal belongings are destroyed, colonialism is sustained, human rights are violated, and humanity is denied.