British Columbia

Penticton bylaw makes sitting on downtown sidewalks a $100 offence

The goal of the bylaw is to curb "bad behaviour" by, in many cases, homeless people, the city's mayor says.

Amendment aimed at curbing 'bad behaviour' by homeless, says mayor — but advocate says it's discriminatory

'People are just afraid of what's happening and they just want city council to protect them as much as possible,' said Mayor John Vassilaki. (Simon Charland/CBC)

City council in Penticton, B.C., has passed a controversial amendment to its "good neighbour" bylaw that makes it an offence to either sit or lie down on certain sidewalks in the downtown core during spring and summer.

The change, which passed five to two on Tuesday, is a result of growing pressure for council in the South Okanagan city to address the issue of homelessness, said Mayor John Vassilaki.

"We've been having so many complaints from not only residents in the area, but also the store owners and the people working in the downtown core," he said.

"They're being intimidated and they're very concerned about their customers not wanting to shop in their premises, because of all the people that are either sitting on the ground, or lying down in front of their storefronts, and many other things."

"People are just afraid of what's happening and they just want city council to protect them as much as possible."

People violating the bylaw can be fined $100.

'Bad behaviour'

The goal of the bylaw is to curb "bad behaviour" by, in many cases, homeless people, Vassilaki told Daybreak South host Chris Walker.

"That's one of our main concerns, where they yell and scream and curse the people that are going by," he said.

He argues that homeless people will still have the option of sitting on benches downtown. 

'We're not the only city in the Okanagan is having these problems. They all have it. It's just that we have to start doing something about it. We can't stand still,' said Mayor John Vassilaki. (Dominika Lirette/CBC)

"They don't have to sit on the ground or in front of a store and create all that bad behaviour that's happening."

Anna Cooper with Pivot Legal Society, said the mayor's depiction of homeless people as being intimidating is dangerous.

"We know that talking about homeless people in that way promotes violence against them. Homeless people are by far the ones who are in danger in any community because of exposure, and because of anti-homeless violence itself," she said.

But the mayor is adamant that all citizens will be treated equally by bylaw officers, regardless of appearance.

"Whether you wear a three-piece suit or you're wearing torn jeans and a torn shirt, makes no difference. The bylaw people will talk to you nicely," Vassilaki said.

Housing needed

The mayor points to past governments and the lack of low-income housing as a catalyst for the bylaw amendment.

"If we took action to make sure that everybody had a place to live, everybody was comfortable, these things that are happening at the present time — not only in the Okanagan but all right across British Columbia — wouldn't be happening," said Vassilaki.

He hopes that supportive housing currently being built by B.C. Housing will help change things. 

Charter violations

City council sought legal advice to ensure they weren't infringing on anyone's rights and freedoms, said Vassilaki. 

The bylaw amendment targets fewer than 2.5 per cent of sidewalks in the city.

Cooper thinks the city did this hoping that it's not a large enough violation of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. 

"What is clear is that the bylaws do violate the charter in that they are discriminatory," said Cooper.

"They specifically target people who are poor, people who are relying on public space to survive, and push them out of their survival spaces. They also specifically target people who are homeless, who we know are disproportionately members of protected groups."

Council's actions support the idea that homeless people are not members of the community, said Cooper.

"Arguably, the people you should be most standing up for are the ones who lack power and wealth in your community, and most need you to use your public position to stand up for them."

With files from Daybreak South and Radio West


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