A recent study by the COVID-19 Policing and Homelessness Initiative out of the University of Toronto mapped out the vagrancy-type offences that affect the homeless.
There are 217 bylaws across Canada containing 365 vagrancy-type offences, including infractions related to sheltering and loitering.
While panhandling is illegal provincewide, Barrie also has municipal bylaws on the books for things such as sheltering (camping or erecting materials such as tents, tarps or other covers in a public space), salvaging (collecting from recycling and refuse containers for personal use, to find edible food, or to collect bottles and cans with recycling value), obstructing (generally defined as bothering a pedestrian’s right to passage), and disorder (vaguely defined as behaviours the public may find to be undesirable).
Two additional city ordinances also prohibit loitering and resting/sleeping.Chair of the Barrie chapter of the Simcoe County Alliance to End Homelessness (SCATEH) Jennifer van Gennip says she's concerned by what she sees with regards to the city's bylaws and how they can be perceived.
“It is a complex issue, for sure,” van Gennip told BarrieToday. “The bylaws clearly aim at those affected by homelessness and really further the stigma associated with that.”
Van Gennip says she became more intrigued about the bylaws during the recent evictions of homeless people living at Milligan’s Pond. On June 18, bylaw enforcement officers went into the wooded area, located near Dunlop and Anne streets, to kick out those who had erected tents and were living in the natural area.
“How can we know if these laws aren’t being used negatively toward those without a place to go? The obstruction bylaw would be used for literally only someone without a home,” said van Gennip. “I think it is really important to take a look at how we are treating those in our society who have nowhere to go and make sure we’re not targeting them.”
Van Gennip said that neither she nor SCATEH have advocated city council to change the bylaws, but hopes to do so.”
Coun. Keenan Aylwin, whose ward includes the city's downtown area, told BarrieToday he has reached out to senior staff at city hall to explore the “options around these problematic bylaws.”
Aylwin says he's concerned about what's happening to homelessness people, but particularly during COVID-19.
“For far too long, we have failed to address the root causes of poverty and homelessness. Instead, we have relied on reactive policing as a way to ‘manage’ these issues,” he said. “We should never be criminalizing poverty or homelessness, but it is particularly concerning during a global pandemic.”
Aylwin is also concerned about how the bylaws will continue to lead people to view the vulnerable sector in the community.
“These bylaws may have the effect of stigmatizing people who are made vulnerable by an oppressive system and may push people further to the margins," Aylwin said. "We should create a loving and just community that provides everybody with the opportunity to live a life of dignity.
“I know that Barrie can be a welcoming and loving place and our bylaws should reflect that," he added. "In the long-term, we need to continue the fight for increased social services and social housing funding to address the root causes of these issues.”