by Lisa Wagner
The City Council of Vancouver was to meet Tuesday to approve a series of increases to fines for 42 city bylaws, including those that allow for the ticketing of homeless people sleeping on the streets and residents involved in illegal street-vending. The maximum fine for the offenses has been increased to $10,000 from the previous $2,000. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see that there is something wrong with this: how are people who can’t make enough money to afford rent even going to be able to afford these fines?
The 2011 Metro Vancouver Homeless Count reports 2,650 homeless people in Vancouver (the count taken over a 24-hour period), and repeatedly assures the reader that this is an underestimation of the actual number. The count includes those living in shelters, in places “unfit for human habitation,” in transition houses, or anywhere that they could not expect to stay for more than 30 days and where they did not pay rent. 29% of the homeless population lives on the streets and of these, 6% were unsheltered because they had been turned away from shelters that were full or whose services they did not qualify for. This appears as a large decrease from 19% turned away in both 2005 and 2008, but the report also mentions that many of the shelters open at the time (March of 2011) were temporary and closed soon after so this decrease is somewhat misleading.
The reasons for homelessness are numerous, and the Homeless Count lists several. The top two reasons are a lack of or too little income and the cost of housing, which isn’t surprising given the low rates of income assistance: the shelter allowance for a single person in BC is $375, and I don’t know about you but I can’t imagine having to find housing in Vancouver priced that low. And although BC has recently raised the minimum wage to $10.25, most minimum wage jobs provide little security to employees and are rarely designated full-time hours, meaning that even if people find jobs, it is difficult to make enough to find proper housing. Not to mention the fact that it is difficult to find work in the first place when you have no fixed address or access to clean clothes and a shower.
So, how are women specifically impacted by all this? Generally, men are overrepresented in the homeless population, particularly in surveys like this one, but there are many factors involved as to why women are differently affected by issues of poverty. Many women who are homeless have experienced physical or sexual violence, leading to their leaving home with no other option but to live on the streets. Given what we know about violence (at 1 in 3 Canadian women have experienced it), and the fact that poverty increases factors leading to violence, we can infer that many women who are experiencing violence choose to stay with abusive partners rather than turn to the shelter system or the streets. On the whole, women are at a higher risk of poverty than men, which can mean that women choose abuse in order to have some level of financial security – and I use the term “choose” extremely loosely, since this isn’t really so much a choice: stay with a partner who harms you or face the harms tied to homelessness. Fining those people who are living on the streets doesn’t make it any easier for women to leave potentially abusive situations (at the risk of a hefty fine – or worse, given the issues of women’s safety on the streets), and may even encourage women to return to abusive partners for the financial support to pay their fines.
Whether it’s the impact on women, men, or society at large, I don’t understand how ANYONE could think that this new policy to increase these fines is a good idea. It has been brought to my attention that the aim of this policy was actually more focused on preventing illegal parking, the building of unsafe living spaces, and the use of buildings as advertising space. And it’s true, all of that is addressed with this new policy. But even if the aim of the policy was not meant to affect the homeless population in Vancouver (and notwithstanding the fact that I really don’t believe policy-makers didn’t think about it), the fact is that people who are forced to live without permanent shelter for a variety of reasons can now be ticketed and fined for the crime of being homeless.
Oh, sorry, I’m forgetting that Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson himself was quoted only a few months ago, stating “being homeless is not a crime.” So I must be mistaken – if Gregor says it, it must be true. And the City of Vancouver has clearly acknowledged that homelessness is an issue in Vancouver. Furthermore, these bylaws aren’t even new, so why are we talking about them? The change in the fines just draws attention to the laws, and the inherent flaws embedded in them. It’s impossible to separate policy intention from the real-life consequences of them. Talking the talk is much different from walking the walk – and city policy in action suggests Vancouver’s commitment to addressing poverty and homelessness is not as solid as they’d like us to believe.
(Update: “Public backlash yesterday (Tuesday) 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 Mainlander)