Homelessness and enforcement in one of the world’s most liveable cities: Vancouver, Canada

Where: Vancouver, Canada

When: 25 November – 29 November 2013

Who: Dr Stephen Gaetz, Associate Professor, York University, Toronto, Director of the Canadian Homelessness Research Network and the Homeless Hub; Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users (VANDU); PHS Community Services Society; and Pivot Legal Society.

Vancouver is a strikingly beautiful city — mountains, beach, Stanley Park, fit people wielding yoga mats and Whistler on your doorstep.  It has consistently made the cut as one of the world’s top five most liveable cities (in 2013 it was at #3 with Melbourne reigning supreme since 2011).

As Melburnians know all too well though, the liveability index is oblivious to people living in cities without safe and secure accommodation (its measures are stability, healthcare, education, infrastructure and culture and environment).  Gold, silver and bronze in 2013 went to Melbourne, Vienna and Vancouver all of which have significant homeless populations for whom the liveability of their respective city is more than a little questionable.

The Vancouver Homeless Count conducted on 13 March  2013, ‘while always an undercount’, identified  1,600 people experiencing homelessness, comprised of 273 people who were unsheltered and 1,327 who were sheltered.  Not dissimilar to the ‘containment’ of Skid Row in Los Angeles, Vancouver’s rough sleeping population is concentrated in the Downtown Eastside (DTES), particularly in Hastings Street.  Also similar to LA, the central location is increasingly coveted for condominiums and commercial use and there’s palpable concern that changes to the area will push low income people out of its familiar streets.


Hope in the Shadows - fantastic community engagement project for low income DTES residents

Hope in the Shadows – fantastic community engagement project for low income DTES residents

Hope in the Shadows - top 40 photographs on display

Hope in the Shadows – top 40 photographs on display

Observations and reflections 

With the exception of a day visiting the Jubilee Park homeless community in Abbotsford, I spent most of my week in Vancouver in Hastings Street, learning from a range of experts in social housing, community organising and law, and sampling the diverse social enterprises that have sprung up in the area.  It’s a vibrant, complex community that has fiercely opposed the gentrification of their streets and the voices of local residents have featured strongly in debates about social housing, policing, ticketing and development.

Some of my observations and reflections from my time in Canada are below.

  1. Visible hardship as an obstruction — I highly recommend this blog by Doug King from Pivot Legal Society, Asking for Help Will Cost You.  Doug talks about a client of his, Shawn Cossaboom, who received 20 tickets for begging in five months.  The tickets were for ‘obstructive solicitation’.  Shawn was sitting with a book and his dog outside the local Safeway, he didn’t ask for money verbally, he just used a sign.  There hadn’t been any complaints and the supermarket permitted him to be there.  On one occasion, Shawn was given a ticket for begging and when he didn’t reach out to take it, the officer dropped it on the ground and ticketed Shawn for littering.  When questioned by the judge at the trial, the police officer noted that Shawn hadn’t been physically obstructive, but ‘people were obstructed by Shawn’s presence’.  The prosecutor acknowledged this was not what the law meant, and asked the judge to acquit.  Doug writes:  ‘That one question, and answer, says a lot about how many of us view poverty in our city. Its existence offends us. We want it to be gone, but we don’t have the means to fix it. Police officers feel the need to act, and dig into their toolbox to grab what they have been trained and told to use, in an effort to force the sight of poverty into remission … At Pivot we don’t pretend to know all the answers, or to have all the solutions. Our hope is that as a society we will continue to move forward, and use the law as a tool to open doors and minds, not suppress the most vulnerable members of our society …  At the end of the day poverty has never left town because someone gave it a ticket’.
  2. The cost of ticketing —Can I See your ID? The Policing of Youth Homelessness in Toronto‘ is one of the first reports I’ve seen that looks at the financial costs of issuing tickets to homeless people (as I’ve touched on in previous posts, there’s a lot of comprehensive evidence about the costs of homelessness, but it generally focuses on the costs of emergency health services, shelter and prison compared to the cost of providing supported housing).  This research considers tickets issued under Ontario’s Safe Streets Act (for aggressive panhandling and ‘squeegeeing’) over an 11 year period and calculates that it has cost $936,019 to issue tickets under the Act (based on 15 minutes worth of time ($13.89) for a Toronto Police Services First Class Constable) and has used 16,847 hours of police time (calculated based on the number of tickets and an estimate that each ticket takes approximately 15 minutes to issue).  This doesn’t include the cost of processing the tickets, follow-up, court and warrants, so obviously shows only a fraction of the overall expenditure of time and money.  The report notes that only $8,086 of the fines has been paid over the 11 year period and questions: ‘Is this a reasonable use of resources, and may there be other crimes deserving of more attention?
  3. Equipping advocates with the evidence they need — the work of Canadian Homelessness Research Network (CHRN) and Homeless Hub is an impressive example of academic research presented in a way that’s accessible outside its immediate academic context.  It’s a delight to look at their clear, concise reports, as well as the infographics, videos, blogs, media and social media that generally accompany their research publications.  By presenting their research in this way, the network aims to equip advocates with the material they need to advocate for change through their work on the ground.  Put simply: ‘the CHRN is committed to enhancing the impact of research on the homelessness crisis’.
  4. Public appetite for enforcement-based responses to homelessness and poverty — the Ontario Safe Streets Act was introduced in 1999 in response to an increase in homelessness and concerns about associated increases in panhandling and ‘squeegeeing’ (window washing at traffic lights).  The Act makes squeegeeing and some forms of panhandling illegal.  In practice, I heard that the new offences created by the Act are not actually overly problematic because even if the Act didn’t exist the police ‘have in their arsenal reams of minor offences they could – and did – ticket people for’.  What is more problematic is the fact that the Act was passed at all and the public sentiment that lies behind its introduction.   The general population’s discomfort with visible homelessness, and the way this impacts on policy and law enforcement, is something I’ve heard about repeatedly throughout my travels.  Here I heard: ‘as long as we make homelessness visible, there are people who don’t want to see it and who are afraid of it’ and that’s what decision-makers are responding to.
  5. When in doubt … — again I heard in Canada that criminalisation measures are ‘tied to the inadequacy of our response to homelessness’ i.e. because we’re not sure what else to do, we get law enforcement involved.
  6. Changing public opinion is tough — in Canada, I revisited the issue of what we need to do to cut through some of the rhetoric about ‘getting tough on crime’ that often dominates conversations and policy decisions about homelessness and public space.  I heard simply: ‘changing public opinion is really difficult … Personal stories will resonate with different people who’ll say, “I never thought about that”, but you also need the quantitative evidence … we need to come at it from different angles’.  There’s also the question of how you measure whether or not you’re changing public opinion — what does a more engaged, insightful public look like and how do we know if we’ve played a role in bringing that about?
  7. Discriminatory ticketing in the DTES — this year VANDU and Pivot Legal Society filed a complaint against the Vancouver Police Department after the results of a freedom of information request showed that 95% of tickets under the Street and Traffic Bylaw had been issued in the Downtown Eastside: 1448 tickets were given out in the DTES, not so closely followed by 28 in the next highest neighbourhood.  The complaint highlighted that the enforcement of these offences and the issuing of tickets was discriminatory and disproportionately targeted low income residents in the DTES.  The Police Board considered the Police Department’s response and dismissed the complaint.  Pivot subsequently asked the Office of the Police Complaint Commissioner to review this dismissal.  This month, the Complaint Commissioner found that the Police Department’s report was flawed, and called on the Police Board to develop a policy aimed at reducing the number of tickets issued in the Downtown Eastside.  I look forward to following the implementation of this recommendation.
  8. Tickets spiralling into something bigger — tickets issued for minor offences such as jaywalking, illegal vending and public urination can very easily turn into a warrant for failure to appear in court (there are a range of reasons people don’t appear in court, including losing track of dates, fear of the process or the outcome and chaotic life circumstances).  I heard from VANDU that they see members going to jail as an indirect consequence of tickets for minor offences and also: ‘Another part of the dynamic is that people start to rack up long rap sheets for procedural offences’ and when they come before a court the lengthy list and failure to appear warrants make a harsher sentence more likely.  In thinking about policies and processes for regulating public space, we can’t ignore the impact tickets have on people’s already difficult circumstances and their future opportunities — it doesn’t stop with the ticket.
  9. Missing Women Commission and the dangerous consequences of broken relationships with police — in September 2010 the Missing Women Commission of Inquiry was established to examine police investigations into the murders and disappearances of numerous women from the Downtown Eastside between 1997 and 2002 (including the decision of the Criminal Justice Branch to stay proceedings on charges against Robert Pickton of attempted murder, assault with a weapon, forcible confinement, and aggravated assault.  Pickton was later convicted of the murder of six women and sentenced to life in prison).  The final report of the Commission, Forsaken, was released by Commissioner Wally Oppal QC in November 2012.  It is 1,448-pages, contains 63 recommendations and concludes that ‘the police investigations into the missing and murdered women were blatant failures’.  Amongst many, many other things, the report talks about the way in which tickets and warrants for poverty-related offences affected women’s relationships with the police and notes that, because women had outstanding warrants and were reluctant to engage with the police, their vulnerability was amplified.    Addressing the relationship between Vancouver’s poorest neighbourhood and the Vancouver Police Department, Oppal recommended: ‘that the City of Vancouver and the Vancouver Police Department take proactive measures to reduce the number of court warrants issued for minor offences by: [r]educing the number of tickets issued and charges laid for minor offences; [d]eveloping guidelines to facilitate greater and more consistent use of police discretion not to lay charges; and [i]ncreasing the ways in which failures to appear can be quashed early in the judicial process.’
  10. Practical alternatives to ticketing — the three offences that I heard local residents are most frequently ticketed for are jaywalking, public urination and illegal street vending.  In each case advocates and residents have proposed constructive, practical strategies that aim to prevent the ‘offending’ conduct and reduce the number of tickets issued: (i) in relation to jaywalking, over a tragic period there were numerous VANDU members and other Hastings Street residents killed or injured by cars as they crossed  local streets.  There was no evidence to suggest that issuing tickets for jaywalking increased pedestrian safety, so instead advocates successfully pushed for a 30km/hour zone to be introduced in recognition of the significant difference speed makes to a driver’s ability to stop or at least to minimising impact.  Anecdotally I heard that the number of injuries and fatalities have significantly reduced since this change; (ii) in relation to public defecation, advocates called for more public toilets (noting that both people sleeping rough and people in overcrowded, poorly equipped SROs lack access to toilets and are left with no alternative); and (iii) in relation to illegal street vending, steps are currently being taken to formalise the ad hoc markets that had previously been the subject of a ticketing blitz for street vendors.  The more structured market currently operates once a week and there are hopes to expand it.  On the issue of street vending and why he does it, a DTES resident who has received multiple tickets, Dave Hamm, said: ‘We don’t have front yards because we live in SROs so in order for us to have a yard sale we need to set up on the sidewalk. We can’t survive on the current welfare and disability rates, but we are allowed to make at least $200 under the new rules — we shouldn’t be criminalized for just trying to survive.’
  11. Nothing about us, without us — I had the privilege of travelling with the Pivot Legal Society team to Abbotsford about 40 minutes outside Vancouver to observe their work with the group of local people experiencing homelessness who had been sleeping in tents in Jubilee Park for about 30 days at that time.  Previously all the camp members slept rough separately, but in recent times a sense of community has grown amongst the group and they’ve merged both their location and their voices to call for more affordable housing and better homelessness services in Abbotsford.  The City has now successfully applied for an injunction requiring the camp members to leave Jubilee Park.  The community has relocated to the neighbouring parking lot pending further legal proceedings.  The call of the group is ‘nothing about us, without us!’  Unsurprisingly, they want a say in the City’s decision about how to tackle Abbotsford’s growing homelessness problem.  During my (brief) visit, I got a sense that this kind of powerful community organising isn’t unusual in and around Vancouver.  In addition to the Jubilee Park community, VANDU’s member-run campaigns make sure the voices of the people directly affected by legal and policy decisions are heard in what can otherwise become highly bureaucratic debates.  In addition to ensuring better informed policies, it’s understood that ‘participating in a broader social justice project is a public health intervention … there’s recognition that playing a role of leadership in their community is beneficial for people’s health’.  Further, ‘any number of good arguments, based on good evidence won’t change things — the affected communities have to stand up and demand change’.
  12. Adequate housing is a huge piece of the puzzle — I again heard that disorder on the streets is in large part a symptom of the chronic shortage of safe, affordable housing.  In Vancouver, social welfare is about $600 per month, $375 for housing and $225 for other support: ‘Drug use and disordered lives are a symptom of disadvantage, not the problem in itself’.  In addition to rough sleepers, people in SROs spend a lot of time on the street because of the inadequacy of their accommodation.
  13. Social enterprises and housing — another thing I’ve heard a number of times throughout my travels is that housing alone isn’t enough for many people, particularly those who’ve experienced long term homelessness and the hardship and isolation that comes with it.  In Vancouver I heard an example of someone who’d said, ‘If I’m alone in a room at night, I start to panic’.  One example of the work PHS does is to create employment or community engagement opportunities for their residents.  Some of the examples I heard of were working in hip cafes, making items and staffing retail stores and tending to community gardens.  These kinds of options can help people reintegrate into their community, build confidence and create further opportunities down the track.  While they may be happening elsewhere, this is one of the first examples I’ve come across where social enterprises, and the opportunities they create, have been integrated into the operation of a housing provider.
  14. Relationships with police in Vancouver — I heard from a number of my interviewees that relationships with police have ‘ebbed and flowed’ over the last two decades.  A ‘ticketing blitz’ in 2008 before the Olympics was a dramatic failure; it ‘created havoc’, damaged the relationship between the police and the DTES community and drowned prosecutors and courts to the point that most of the tickets weren’t prosecuted.  I heard: ‘The best times are when we’ve got a police contact person who sticks around long enough … police move too much and then you have to start from scratch with building understanding’. Ultimately, leadership within the force is critical to constructive engagement.   Some of the ways in which relationships are reportedly improved include senior police officers attending regular meetings with community organisations, including peer representatives: ‘Problems arise when you have less experienced, less acclimatised officers policing the streets … We need officers attuned to the needs of the community to progress within the force’.
  15. Some examples of best practice policing — experts I spoke with mentioned two examples of innovative policing:  (i) in Calgary they organise the police differently.  They have ordinary police and they have a minor offences team who patrol the streets and call the mainstream team if things get unruly.  The street team plays more of an engagement role, ‘it’s almost more of a social work role’.  The Calgary Police Service website says: ‘[h]omelessness and poverty in itself are not criminal justice issues; they are societal issues that require a community response as a whole. The Calgary Police Service works closely with community members, partners and stakeholders to assist those experiencing homelessness‘; and (ii) Lethbridge, Alberta has an outreach unit within the police force that works directly with homelessness support agencies.  An evaluation report states: ‘Since the partnership began, the police have nearly stopped issuing tickets to people experiencing homelessness and are instead working with Housing First staff.’  The programs in Calgary and Lethbridge are both driven by strong leaders within the police force and they are happening in communities that have strong, coordinated responses to homelessness i.e. addressing homelessness isn’t just seen as the role of the homeless sector, but also health, child protection, education and police services.  ‘None of these initiatives would have happened without a particular person … it takes that person’.

The next update will be on my time in London.  The blogs have gotten a little out of sync with my physical presence, which is en route back to Melbourne as we speak!  There’s a guest blog for the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness called ‘I Believe in Human Rights‘ that might be of interest and there’ll be an update on Old Blighty before Christmas or very early in the new year, so stay tuned.

The infamous Balmoral Hotel - a privately run SRO not unlike Melbourne's notorious rooming houses

The infamous Balmoral Hotel – a privately run SRO not unlike Melbourne’s notorious rooming houses

Messages from the residents of the Abbotsford encampment - nothing about us, without us!

Messages from the residents of the Abbotsford encampment – nothing about us, without us!


One comment

  1. So interesting Lucy, and such comprehensive reflections. Looking forward to hearing what you made of London, and learning about all the things I have missed so far in my time here.

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