British Columbia

Critics say Prince George's new safe streets bylaw unfairly targets homeless citizens

A new city bylaw empowers officers to issue $100 tickets for “nuisance” behaviour including panhandling and open drug use.

Downtown residents and businesses complain tent city, nuisance behaviour, are a public safety threat

Prince George has passed a safe streets bylaw that advocacy groups like Together We Stand say victimizes and stigmatizes homeless and at-risk citizens. (Andrew Kurjata/CBC)

Prince George city council passed a controversial safe streets bylaw Monday night amid a divisive citywide debate over downtown homelessness, access to social services, victimization and public safety.

The bylaw, which split council in a 5-3 vote, empowers officers to issue $100 tickets for a broad range of "nuisance" behaviours including panhandling, open drug use, and loitering in doorways.

Homeless advocates immediately voiced criticisms of the bylaw. 

"They've just given [officers] the right to openly discriminate and stigmatize our homeless, just for being just that: homeless," said Maybeline John, a member of the community group Together We Stand.

B.C. Assembly of First Nations Regional Chief Terry Teegee said the bylaw unfairly victimizes Indigenous people, who make up a significant part of the city's homeless and at-risk population.

"I think it's just another barrier to Indigenous people, accessing or trying to access help, or lead out of their ... addictions and mental health issues," Teegee said.

Downtown safety and crime a concern

Tammy Hull, a spokesperson for the pro-bylaw downtown business and residents' group Miller Addition Connaught Concerned Citizens Committee, says the issue comes down to public safety and escalating crime.

"I'm scared to walk in my neighbourhood alone. I've been chased, I've had people yelling and screaming at all hours of the night," Hull said.

Last Friday, a woman in her mid 30s was shot near a Prince George tent city and was hospitalized with non-life-threatening injuries.

Prince George RCMP say they've recorded a rise in complaints from the nearby Millar Addition, a residential neighbourhood that overlooks the homeless camp.

City council split on solutions

Prince George Mayor Lyn Hall, who voted in favour of the bylaw, argued the city had few options and could not wait for new social housing, addictions support and social services, which are the responsibility of other levels of government. 

"People will come to us and say, 'What are you doing?' Well you have to do something different, because what you're doing isn't working. My immediate response is, 'What is that then?' You tell me what we can do different," he said.

Councillor Cori Ramsay, who opposed the bylaw, raised doubts that $100 fines would be an effective deterrent.

"Think about the last time you got a ticket, a fine, a late fee, was your immediate response, 'Oh darn it, I'm going to change my behaviour?' Or was it immediately frustration and anger?" she asked during the council meeting. 

"This bylaw is not going to change behaviour."

With files from CBC's Daybreak North with Carolina de Ryk