In a divided vote, Prince George city council passed a controversial safe streets bylaw that will allow for bylaw officers to ticket for a number of “nuisance” behaviours like panhandling, open drug use or lying down and obstructing a street or roadway.
The bylaw was approved with a five-to-three vote with Councillors Terri McConnachie, Kyle Sampson, Susan Scott, Brian Skakun, as well as Mayor Lyn Hall, voting in favour.
Councillors Cori Ramsay, Murry Krause and Frank Everitt were opposed. Coun. Garth Frizzell was absent as he's currently running as a Liberal candidate for Cariboo-Prince George in the upcoming federal election.
“We can’t ignore this reality, as a society and as a city we get to set boundaries,” said McConnachie. “Enabling behaviour that victimizes others is not part of being trauma-informed. We have to face the fact that there are bad people out there and this cannot be about who is the worst victim.”
“There are two clear lines of this issue. There’s homelessness, mental health, addictions and those issues and then there’s crime,” said Sampson. “I am not okay with crime taking place in our community and us not doing something about it.”
“This bylaw isn’t intended to keep our streets safe, it’s intended to keep our streets clear,” said Ramsay. “I believe there are other avenues we need to exhaust before we pass this bylaw. The answer is advocacy until we get what our community needs.”
Krause said the bylaw’s effects will be marginal and his major concern is it will expose homeless people to parasitic offers of housing and drive people even further underground.
“I don’t think this will mitigate the issues raised by the Miller Addition residents, downtown merchants and homeowners elsewhere.”
On June 14, city council had approved the first three readings of the bylaw, which allows bylaw officers to issue $100 tickets with a $75 penalty for late payment for the various behaviours, however, the final decision was delayed until Aug. 30.
On Aug. 27, a woman in her mid 30s was shot near the tent city at 3 a.m. and was hospitalized with non-life-threatening injuries.
While unrelated to the bylaw, the city is also pursuing an injunction with the B.C. Supreme Court to have the tent city removed and working with B.C. Housing on “accommodations that best meet their needs.”
Before council voted on the issue, three groups made presentations regarding the bylaw: BC Assembly of First Nations (BCAFN), citizen-led homeless advocacy group Together We Stand, and the Miller Addition Connaught Concerned Citizens Committee.
“The issue of having a bylaw that is very punitive and in essence punishes the poor for being poor is really not the way to go,” said BCAFN Regional Chief Terry Teegee.
He explained the bylaw targets the city’s homeless population, of which an estimated 80 per cent is Indigenous.
Teegee then referred to Dr. Joseph Hermer, chair of the department of sociology at the University of Toronto, who had also submitted a letter to council explaining the harm the bylaw may cause the city’s homeless population.
“Simply put these bylaws will make the lives of unsheltered people more miserable and more dangerous and they will badly damage the ability for homeless people to get the help they need,” said Hermer.
He said he’s researched every city in Canada with a population greater than 5,000 and found the bylaw proposed in Prince George similar to archaic vagrancy laws from the 18th and 19th centuries.
“I can tell you that the prohibition being proposed tonight by Prince George are unusually punitive and severe and one of the worst examples that we’ve seen in terms of their possible impact.”
Hermer said the bylaws will create displacement and cause vulnerable people to isolate themselves and make them less likely to access supportive services which could lead to an increase in overdose deaths.
“I have lived homeless. I have lived addiction, discrimination, restrictions and jail. I got clean and sober in Prince George and I would not survive the bylaw effects if I were still homeless,” said Mabeline John, who presented alongside Amelia Merrick with Together We Stand.
John said there are not enough safe consumption sites or social services available in Prince George, especially since the COVID-19 pandemic.
“The bylaw will give power to stigma. It will allow people to legally discriminate against people living in poverty.”
Merrick said the advocacy group agrees Prince George has a complex social crisis but does not think the bylaw is the solution.
“We believe this is an overly simplistic approach to a very complex problem,” said Merrick. “We think the safe streets bylaw is like if there’s a forest fire and we went out with water guns.”
While this bylaw would apply to all of Prince George it would especially affect residents of a “tent city” at the east end of Fifth Avenue which its occupants have dubbed “Moccasin Flats."
Alissa Nyheim-Rivet and Tammy Hull with the Miller Addition Connaught Concerned Citizens Committee spoke to council in regards to an increase in crime they’ve been experiencing over the past few months which they attribute to the tent city.
Just a few days prior to the council meeting on Aug. 27, a woman in her mid 30s was shot near the tent city at 3 a.m. and was hospitalized with non-life-threatening injuries.
Nyheim-Rivet says in the last three months some residents in the area have experienced issues like trespassing, sexual harassment, verbal threats, fires, gunshots from the encampment, assault with bear spray and a home invasion.
“These crimes are becoming more frequent and the normal,” said Nyheim-Rivet. “A woman was shot in the encampment. Where was her protection, where was her safety, where was her security. Was she scared and alone? This is not okay for anyone to live like this.”
She said about 60 community members came together for a meet and greet regarding the tent city and the consensus was a feeling of lack of safety and that most people within this group supported the safe streets bylaw.
Mayor Lyn Hall confirmed that city staff and personnel will be reporting back on the impact of the bylaw.