British Columbia

Vancouver trespass-prevention program hurts people who are homeless and poor, advocates say

Civil rights groups have filed a complaint against the Vancouver Police Department’s trespass prevention program, which they say disproportionately impacts racialized and Indigenous people.

VPD says no arrests have been made under the policy

Seven advocacy groups have complained about the VPD's trespass prevention program on the grounds that it is discriminatory. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

Civil rights groups have filed a complaint against the Vancouver Police Department's trespass prevention program, which they say disproportionately impacts Indigenous people and people of colour.

The program, which went into effect in September 2020, allows police officers to arrest trespassers without a report from property owners.

In their complaint, seven advocacy groups say it lacks oversight and regulation and is in contravention of the VPD's commitment to not stop people based on their race or social status.

"In our view, the trespass prevention program is a pipeline for racial discrimination that will disproportionately impact Indigenous and racialized people, particularly those who are impacted by poverty," says Harsha Walia, executive director of the B.C. Civil Liberties Association.

She says the program 'essentially authorizes' street checks by police officers by giving them authority to detain people and take their information on the grounds that they were trespassing.

Earlier this year, the department released new guidelines around street checks after it emerged that Indigenous people were disproportionately affected by them.

The VPD denies that they collect personal information during trespass prevention. "We're not using this as an enforcement tool by any means. There have been zero arrests [and] zero tickets issued," says Sgt. Steve Addison.

Addison was unable to provide the number of businesses who have signed up for the program in time for publication, though he said they were primarily located in the downtown core and Chinatown. 

The complaint says "more than 100" businesses and stratas were involved.

The VPD program allows participating properties to display a badge on their premises that gives officers permission to arrest trespassers.

In a 2015 report, the Office of the Police Complaint Commissioner called such enforcement a "conflict of interest" for officers.

Examples of private spaces listed in the program brochure include awnings, storefronts and areas near sidewalks.

Sex workers have had to resort to such spaces during the ongoing pandemic, according to Mebrat Beyene, executive director of the WISH Drop-In Centre Society.

"This type of sex work is often very survival based. Given more equitable access to opportunities, street-based sex workers would likely not be using private spaces in this way," she says.

"But again, due to deep poverty and lack of actual choices and options, this is what a lot of street-based sex workers are left with."

Beyond the impacts on people who rely on public spaces, like street-based sex workers and people experiencing homelessness, Walia says there are also structural issues with the program.

"There's no written policies or guidelines that are actually in place about how this program will work," she says. "It's just kind of a legal black hole in that regard."

Complaint to take time to resolve

Drug policy advisor Karen Ward is also listed on the complaint filed with the VPD's professional standards section.

Ward was one of the first to call attention to the program in January this year, though it went into effect last September.

Her tweet spawned a strong response from the seven advocacy groups, resulting in their official complaint filed on Tuesday.

The seven advocacy groups supporting the complaint are: B.C. Civil Liberties Association; Coalition of Peers Dismantling the Drug War; Downtown Eastside Women's Centre; Pivot Legal Society; Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs; Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users and WISH Drop-In Centre Society

The VPD will now conduct a review of the complaint and report back to the police board in September.