Advocate for homelessness says bylaw restricting encampments is “criminalizing poverty”

“I don’t want people to be in a worse position than they potentially already are. That’s not what the bylaw is about,” – Councillor Trevor Bolin.
City of Fort St. John Councillor Trevor Bolin and First United Executive Director Amanda Burrows. ( Supplied )

FORT ST. JOHN, B.C. — An advocate for individuals suffering from homelessness in Vancouver’s Down Town East Side (DTES) says bylaws restricting encampments on public property are criminalizing poverty, while City of Fort St. John Councillor Trevor Bolin says these laws aim to ensure the safety of the community. 

Amanda Burrows, executive director at First United in the DTES and advocate for unhoused individuals, shared her perspective on homelessness in Fort St. John and Bolin’s recommendation to pass a bylaw restricting encampments on public property. 

According to Burrows, international human rights law says individuals have a right to housing and shelter, and in the lack of adequate housing, tents are allowed for use as a substitute. 

“It’s a common response to justify these forced evictions by using bylaws such as this [Bolin’s] to be able to respond to things like beautification, perceived notions of public safety, fire safety, and even redevelopment opportunities,” said Burrows. 

“By having these bylaws, which often we [advocates] call the criminalization of poverty, it disproportionately affects the poor.”

Burrows says bylaws such as the one Bolin recommends “have punitive measures that come back to the folks that are poor.”

“It actually perpetuates harm and keeps people in cycles of poverty,” Burrows said. 

Burrows says courts in B.C. and Canada often strike down bylaws restricting encampments, and if they [city council] try to move forward with Bolin’s recommended bylaw, they will have their work cut out for them.

“Courts do strike these down as unconstitutional because it infringes upon our rights to life, liberty, and security,” said Burrows.

Bolin disagreed with Burrows’ initial statement and, in reference to the Fort St. John Salvation Army’s emergency shelter and supportive housing, said, “If there’s adequate housing, you can ban shelters and tents.”

The emergency shelter is equipped with 24 beds, runs year-round, and is temporary lodging, which means tenants must check in daily. The new supportive housing building offers 42 units for long-term lodging and is currently three-quarters full. 

“We’re not Vancouver’s [downtown] east side,” said Bolin. 

“We’re a population of 23,000 people that are dealing with something larger than it’s ever been and looking for assistance. We’re not looking to get told what we’re going to do is not going to work because I think she’s wrong.”

According to Burrows, there are “tools in the local government’s toolbox that don’t have to come with punitive measures and create criminalization of poverty.”

“Municipalities have the ability to rezone and use their bylaws for good to create more housing stock for social housing,” said Burrows. 

“You can do waivers, there’s property taxes, there’s land transfers.”

Burrows continued by saying advocacy is another tool local governments can use by partnering with provincial and federal governments to create long-term solutions to “speak into the housing crisis that is happening within the community.”

“Frankly, what should be happening is since people have the right to shelter, those tents should actually be, from a human rights perspective, allowed to stay there.”

Bolin says Burrows’ suggestion is easier said than done.

“She [Burrows] sounds like she’s working with the provincial government with those comments because it’s easy to just widespread-brush every municipality in B.C. and say just do this, it’s easy to do it,” said Bolin. 

“We don’t even see buildings being built that the city could designate for use as social housing. We can’t force people to build social housing just like we’re having trouble forcing people to stop living in tents.”

Bolin says the bylaw recommendation isn’t about criminalizing poverty-stricken individuals.

“I don’t want people to be in a worse position than they potentially already are. That’s not what the bylaw is about,” said Bolin. 

“At the end of the day, the bylaw is about keeping the folks that are living in the tent safe, and it’s about keeping the folks in the community safe.”

Both Bolin and Burrows agreed that the housing crisis in B.C. and across Canada is a result of “decades of failed social policy.” 

Burrows believes mental health and addiction have not been taken into priority by the federal and provincial governments over the decades, and the outcome of the current housing crisis has created a stigma surrounding unhoused individuals.

“We sort of indoctrinated ourselves to think it’s the individual’s fault and not a massive systems failure,” said Burrows. 

Burrows says this stigma has painted the people who are “actually victims of the system” as people who are at fault for their current circumstances. 

“They should pull themselves up by their bootstraps, but they don’t even have any boots. We’re trying to untangle that sort of mentality right now.”

Bolin says while he has compassion for Fort St. John’s unhoused community, he understands the concerns and frustrations of residents and community members. 

“I’ve had family in that position, and I don’t wish it on anybody. I think part of it is that they’re in a position now where they also may feel that they need to steal to survive,” said Bolin. 

“I think we’re finding a lot of the lack of compassion is coming from people who are scared to lose what they’ve worked for or to have that stolen.”

According to Bolin, finding a designated place for an encampment may work in the short term, but a long-term solution needs to be found.

“We’re four months away from the point where you can’t sleep outside. We’re going to be there before we know it, and then what’s next?” said Bolin. 

“These people that are fighting for their lives right now or doing what they can to survive, what happens when it’s November? What happens when missing bikes or smaller missing items turn into freezing to death?” 

Bolin says he can place blame on the provincial and federal government or the individuals suffering from homelessness themselves, but at the end of the day, a plan that ensures the entire safety of the community is crucial. 

“It’s going to take us a while to fix this,” said Bolin. 

“We’re going to have to do it as a community, and that means the volunteers and the people who love Fort St. John are going to band together and make sure that this is a better place for all.”

From her experience working on the frontlines of Vancouver’s DTES, Burrows believes the first thing community members can do to work towards a solution and aid the unhoused population is “get curious and understand everybody has value.”

“We need to develop an understanding and empathy about why people are homeless, and from there, take action, which can be in the form of compassion,” said Burrows. 

Burrows says as individuals, people can respond to homeless residents in their community by ensuring they have basic needs, such as food, shelter, and sanitation.

“We can also advocate to our elected officials that it is not okay to use punitive measures to force people to move because it is just moving them somewhere where it’s not visible and pushing them into unsafe situations,” Burrows said. 

“We will see amazing things if we lead with compassion and not with punishment.”

Bolin is set to write a detailed recommendation that will then be sent to city staff to draw up a bylaw that will be presented to council to vote on at a regular council meeting on July 24th. The bylaw would then need to be read three times before being implemented.


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