Vancouver’s Poor Laws: City council to approve $10,000 fine for homelessness

streetmarket Image by Ahamedia

On today’s agenda at City Hall sits a proposal to increase the maximum fines on 42 city by-laws by a factor of five. Among the changes are measures to levy $10,000 fines on low-income people for sleeping outside, jaywalking, and engaging in “illegal” street vending of recycled wares, a crime councillor Kerry Jang recently called “unacceptable behavior.” A homeless person in Vancouver already gets a minimum $1,000 fine for erecting a tent in public (under the illegal Structures By-law covered by The Mainlander here, here and here), but the new revisions propose extending that punitive logic to all aspects of daily life.

The report to city council states that both the ‘Street Vending’ and ‘Street and Traffic’ by-laws will have their upper limits increased from $2,000 to $10,000. Pivot legal society has noted in the Straight that people who are homeless cannot possibly afford to pay the previous fines, nevermind the new fines. The same is doubtless true of low-income street vendors selling recycled wares. With the city’s new measures, the poor can now be jailed for fifteen days for non-payment.

The City is asserting the importance of “compliance with the by-laws” at a time when the city’s homeless shelters are systematically turning away hundreds per night. Since the election of Gregor Robertson the homeless shelters have been over-capacity year (2012) after year (2011) after year (2010).

The City has completely ignored the effect that the fine increases will have on civil liberties or on the poor, as also noted by Pivot: “the failure to recognize that homeless and low-income people are caught under these bylaws – whether intentionally or not – demonstrates a lack of compassion and accommodation for the City’s most marginalized communities.” The City’s staff report does not mention the Housing and Homelessness Strategy or other relevant policies. Instead, the recommendations are framed exclusively around corporate efficiency and urban livability. The proposal is backed up with recourse to the City’s Corporate Strategic Business Plan (2010-2020), which “provides effective regulatory services that make Vancouver a safe and liveable community for residents, businesses and visitors.”

The rationale for the fine increases was further explained to the media by councilor Geoff Meggs, who said that city by-laws continue to be violated because the fines are simply too low, “currently there is no deterrent.” (Meggs is the same councillor who last week declared that yarn bombing should “die” because it makes trees “look homeless”). So, it is because the fines are not high enough that people continue to buy and sell used goods in the streets, and that people are forced to sleep on the streets. By this logic, people eat at food banks only because food banks don’t charge higher prices for food.

Vision: policing the eastside

Instead of dealing with the root causes of poverty and homelessness, such as high rent, city hall has increasingly asked the police to manage the symptoms of inequality. When Vision released their Safe, Livable Neighbourhoods platform in 2011, they hinted that this would mean yet more funding for the police. This tone was already set in the previous elections of 2008. In the lead-up to the Olympics, the NPA gave the VPD more powers to prosecute the urban poor with the Safe Streets Act. Even though Vancouver had experienced a 9% decrease in the crime rate from 2007 to 2008, Gregor Robertson ran a series of negative campaign ads in the 2008 elections to portray crime as “skyrocketing” while attacking his opponents for not hiring extra police officers and for being soft on crime.

Once elected Vision followed through by hiring 100 extra police officers and clamping down on civil liberties. In 2008 the police were already absorbing $180m per year. Today, after four years of consecutive increases, total police expenditures are $213 million — more than 20% of the city’s budget. “Livable and Sustainable Neighborhoods” is another way of saying, “Unlivable and Policed Neighborhoods.”

The new laws reveal the true ideology of the “green” neoliberal city government. The promise to end homelessness by 2015 comes not so much out of compassion as from the marketing department of a real-estate firm. As the Downtown Eastside continues offering margins of profitability to Vision’s primary backers in the real-estate industry, the frontier of an eastward-moving gentrification boundary wants to continue its march. One major obstacle on that march is the DNC Street Market, a weekly institution on Carrall Street where poor people gather to sell used goods and personal belongings.

UPDATE Jan 16th: Public backlash caused the city to postpone discussion on fine increases for items relating to homelessness and street vending only minutes before the hearing was to begin yesterday Tues Jan 15th at 6pm (see Mainlander article here).