“Public outrage” causes city to postpone $10,000 fine for homelessness

Credit: Vlastula on Flickr

Public backlash yesterday against the City’s plan to increase fines on homelessness and street-vending to $10,000 caused the Mayor’s office to pull the item from the agenda just before the 6pm public hearing time.

According to statements made last night by Vision city councillors Geoff Meggs, Raymond Louie, and Andrea Reimer, the party has decided to postpone a decision on the matter — not because they are opposed to the high fines, but out of legal obligations in response to ongoing constitutional challenges against the City in court.

The stated reason for the postponement was that the PIVOT Legal Society has launched a court challenge against the existing $2,000 fines for homelessness. The court challenge did not arise at the last minute, however, and has been ongoing since November of last year. Councillors were in full knowledge of this legal challenge (and others), as well as the impacts of the legislation on the poor and on civil liberties, when on November 28 2012 they approved the new fines in principle and asked the city’s lawyers to draft the bylaws, to be voted upon after yesterday’s public hearing. The impacts of the proposed bylaws were also discussed in recent newspaper articles, including one in the Straight on January 9th entitled “Higher fines could hit Vancouver’s homeless hard.” Nevertheless, Vision felt the new bylaws were ready to come to a vote, and made no attempt to incorporate exceptions into the bylaws for homeless people or those who cannot afford $10,000 fines.

In a last effort to block the new bylaws, PIVOT’s Scott Bernstein issued a statement on Monday January 14th, the day before yesterday’s hearing and vote. The strongly worded text argued that the city’s “…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 cannot plead ignorance of this issue given our pending lawsuit.” Finally, yesterday The Mainlander also published an article, which went viral, warning that the item was to be voted upon after the public hearing.

The down-to-the wire postponement was not, therefore, directly caused by Vision’s disapproval of high fines, nor by PIVOT’s or the BCCLA’s longstanding lawsuits — otherwise the fines would not have been on the agenda at all. As Scott Bernstein wrote today in an email to PIVOT supporters, “Faced with public outrage, Council backed off.”

Gregor Robertson has now stated: “Council did not proceed with bylaw changes to increase fines that might affect homeless people in Vancouver.” The message is intentionally ambiguous about council’s decision, giving the impression that the amendments were cancelled outright, when in reality they were only postponed. To say that high fines “might” affect the homeless is false. As highlighted by PIVOT’s legal challenge, Vancouver’s high fines are already negatively affecting homeless people, nevermind the added injustice of a 400% increase.

After scuttling the offending bylaws at the last moment, councillors went into damage control mode in order to obscure the fact that they supported the $10,000 fine for being homeless. Councillors Raymond Louie and Geoff Meggs criticized The Mainlander for sounding the alarm about the proposed fine increases, saying that Mainlander article was “wrong” because it did not report on council’s decision to postpone vote. (The article, however, was published many hours before the decision to postpone.)

Further, Meggs wrote on his blog: “The increased fines enacted at last night’s public hearing covered violations of the zoning bylaw and the sign bylaw. (The entire package had been debated at council in 2012 and forwarded for enactment at public hearing.)” This is untrue, because according to the motion passed on November 28th, only the list of fine changes relating to signs and development were sent to public hearing (council’s meeting minutes are available here). The changes impacting street vending and homelessness were not to be debated by the public, but finalized by a simple vote without any public input. However, “public outrage” on social media, outside council chambers, was effective at blocking the bylaws.

The new fines for homeless residents and street vendors (for whom there is no constitutional challenge) are still up in the air, and have not been rejected by City council, but postponed.