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B.C. laws stacked to discard of homeless people's belongings, report shows

Homeless and precariously housed people in B.C. face a systemic loss of their possessions as a result of a patchwork of regulations and a housing system that provides no security for the most vulnerable.
City crews dispose of a tent on East Hastings Street.

Provincial and municipal laws are stacked against the province’s growing number of homeless and precariously housed people wishing to hold on to the few belongings they have, a group of social researchers assert in a newly published report.

“There’s really nowhere that people can be without someone controlling their belongings. And controlling in a way that’s far from transparent, reliant on discretion and often entailing forms of devaluation,” said Nick Bromley, a geography professor at Simon Fraser University.

“Everyone has belongings and those belongings matter,” said Bromley, one of several lead authors of Belongings Matter — Possessions of Precariously Housed People.

The goal of the report, said Bromley, is to spur greater understanding of an overlooked issue that can lead to greater problems for such vulnerable people.

Belongings can be anything from a tent for survival to personal mementos and even pets.

“Losing things with emotional significance can be traumatic,” said Bromley, and “the people we spoke to, they actually expect their belongings to be taken.”

A precariously housed person is someone who may be couch surfing or who resides in a rooming house, transition house or shelter. Many others find themselves in insecure rental housing, the report notes.

The report condenses four geographical spaces where laws restrict the rights of personal possessions of homeless or precariously housed individuals: streets, parks, rental housing and shelters.

“Provincial and municipal laws significantly restrict the type and number of possessions that a person can have and use in a street environment, whether public or private.

“These restrictions are further complicated by the lack of storage options in most municipalities and the stigma faced by precariously housed people,” states the report.

On streets, municipalities govern possessions and structures via bylaws. For example, shopping carts are a practical way to contain one’s possessions, but the City of Vernon voted in 2018 to implement a shopping cart bylaw that would prohibit their use in public spaces. And, across many jurisdictions, seized items often require a person to pay a detention or removal fee to get items back.

Meanwhile, parks have their own additional rules and regulations that hinder a homeless person trying to maintain the few items they hold on to.

Some B.C. cities had camping bans but recent court rulings have found they can violate human rights. As such, a city such as Victoria allows tents in parks but nevertheless places geographic and time restrictions on those seeking shelter, the report notes.

As such, the regulations make possession of belongings difficult.

“The bylaws that permit overnight sheltering seem to provide park dwellers with an amount of respite compared to jurisdictions where setting up temporary shelters could lead to the immediate enforcement through ticketing, or seizure or destruction of their belongings.

“However, unhoused and precariously housed people often have complex lives and needs, and the cycle of needing to dismantle a shelter and move one’s belongings before setting up again in the evening is not sustainable for most people, particularly given challenges in accessing secure storage for their possessions,” the report states.

Homeless people also have a difficult time holding on to their pets, the report notes.

“For people living in parks and on streets with a companion animal, there are additional stressors caused by the heightened surveillance of their animals compared to the pets of housed people.”

For people living in the likes of single-occupancy rooms and shelters, keeping belongings is also challenging.

There are limited protections, such as a landlord not requiring to store belongings deemed by them to be abandoned, if they have a value under $500.

Fire regulations also work against homeless people, such as the August 2022 removal of an encampment on Hastings Street in Vancouver. The report asserts the fire codes were used before governments provided street campers with adequate garbage disposal and storage facilities.

Bromley asserts a key problem is the authorities enforcing laws against these vulnerable people are working in silos. So, there are bylaw officers enforcing laws on the street, park rangers doing so in parks, shelter operators enforcing their own set of laws and provincial statutes overseeing the likes of police and fire departments. The combined effect of these authorities is only seen by the homeless and precariously housed population, he said.

The report also suggests these laws are rooted in racist, colonial systems, granted Indigenous people are disproportionately represented in the homeless and precariously housed populations.

Furthermore, the researchers found “Indigenous, Black, and other people of colour, people who use drugs, people stigmatized around mental illness or other health conditions, people with disabilities, and people who are non-conforming in other ways often experience greater enforcement than other precariously housed individuals who exist in these same spaces.”

The most obvious solution is for people to have housing where they have control and agency, said Bromley.

The number of people in Metro Vancouver identified as homeless during a point-in-time count in March totalled 4,821 — a 32 per cent increase over the last regional count in March 2020 when 3,634 were recorded without a home.

Asked what a solution may be barring housing coming to everyone who needs it, Bromley replied: “Maybe stop taking people’s stuff?”

Bromley said storage facilities can be helpful but only in the right circumstances, such as locating them in places people feel safe around.

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