City council has postponed the final vote on the controversial Safe Streets Bylaw until the end of August.
On June 14, city council had approved the first three readings of the bylaw, which would allow city bylaw officers to issue $100 tickets for a number of "nuisance" behaviours like panhandling, open drug use and camping in public areas. The final reading of the bylaw, normally just a formality, was slated to go to a vote on Monday night.
Coun. Cori Ramsay proposed the postponement, initially asking for the bylaw to come back to city council on Oct. 4. However, following a successful amendment motion by Coun. Garth Frizzell, the date for the bylaw to return for final reading was set for Aug. 30.
Council voted six to three in favour of postponing the final reading of the bylaw.
"I think we need to spend more time taking it to our community partners," Ramsay said. "I feel... strongly that policing our way out of this is not a solution."
Coun. Susan Scott said roughly 400 citizens have reached out to city council in emails, letters, a petition, phone calls and in-person conversations on this issue.
"We need to pause and do a little more work," Scott said.
Councillors Murray Krause and Frank Everitt said the bylaw, as proposed, would cause more problems than solutions.
"Fining people is not going to work. I don't believe the courts are going to waste their time with this," Krause said. "We are creating a monster here, in terms of how this is going to be managed."
Everitt said he'd support the bylaw, if he thought it would work. He said the city needs to look at an approach that addresses the problems, without painting all homeless people with the same brush.
"Not everybody who is homeless or on the street is... a bad person," he said.
Under the proposed bylaw, it would be prohibited to panhandle within 10 metres of a bank or ATM, bus stop, daycare centre, liquor store, cannabis store, restaurant, coffee shop or convenience store. The bylaw also would prohibit panhandling from people in vehicles when they are parked, stopped at a traffic light or stop sign, filling up at a gas station, or in any way that obstructs traffic.
Panhandling would also be prohibited after sunset daily.
Bylaw officers would be able to ticket people for using prohibited drugs, or disposing of drug paraphernalia, on any street, open space area or park.
The proposed bylaw also would prohibit open burning on any street, open area or park, graffiti and sitting, lying down or physically approaching people in a way that causes an obstruction on a street or sidewalk.
Mayor Lyn Hall said the postponement means council has more time to meet with other groups, including provincial ministry staff and BC Housing, as well as learn from what other cities have done.
"Other cities have got safe streets bylaws where they've had to make changes, because it didn't work," Hall said. "I want a Safe Streets Bylaw. I understand the necessity to do this, but we need to do it right."
'WE NEED TO TAKE BACK THE STREETS'
Downtown business owners and their staff are dealing with constant problems, including broken windows, discarded needles, theft, vandalism, defecating on their property, aggressive panhandling and more, Coun. Brian Skakun said. A delay just prolongs those problems, he said.
"We need to take back the streets," Skakun said. "(Business owners) lives are getting ruined, they are at their wits end."
During a presentation to city council earlier Monday evening, Downtown Prince George executive director Colleen Van Mook said downtown businesses have had more problems with vandalism, theft and "biohazards" in 2020 than in previous years.
"The criminal activity, we don't know where it is coming from. We're just dealing with the symptoms," she said. "The result of it can be devastating to businesses. We want downtown to be a place where everybody feels safe, everybody feels welcome."
Downtown Prince George president and Nancy O's co-founder Eion Foley said that most of their members are "quite sympathetic to the people on the street."
"That sympathy wears pretty hard when your windows get smashed or you find biohazards in your back door," Foley said.
Skakun said that people, including the homeless and drug addicts, need to be held accountable for their actions.
Coun. Teri McConnachie said she knows she doesn't have all the answers, and none of the many people she spoke to did either, but something has to change.
She said heard from one woman who had the earbuds ripped out of hair after she refused a panhandler, another person walked out at their lunch break to see a person a sex act being performed on the street in the middle of the day.
McConnachie said she'd heard of people being assaulted, spit on or had their hair pulled.
"We can't have our downtown streets looking the way they are," she said. "The Safe Streets Bylaw does not penalize all homeless people. I have every confidence that (the city's bylaw officers) will work with the tools in this bylaw appropriately."
Coun. Kyle Sampson said the problems downtown have been getting worse for a decade, and exponentially worse since 2017. City administration have brought the Safe Streets Bylaw forward as one way to address the complex issue that is homelessness, he said.
"I've received a lot of correspondence from people saying they don't like this. I've got a lot of correspondence from people saying they'd like to give it a try," Sampson said. "If this doesn't pass, it encourages this behaviour. This bylaw, to me, is about stopping criminal behaviour."
Sampson questioned whether any of the councillors around the table will have changed their minds about the bylaw when it comes back again.
"Are we just postponing it for the sake of postponing it?"