Protestors sit on sidewalks against recent bylaw “criminalising” homelessness
On Monday, December 5 at 4:30PM, members of the community gathered on the sidewalk outside City Hall in downtown Kelowna to protest against a recent bylaw. The sit-in—or rather, sit-out—shared mostly over Facebook, was attended by around 100 people.
The bylaw being contested will make sitting or sleeping on sidewalks a criminal offence 24 hours a day, punishable by a $50 fine. The previous bylaw had made lying on the streets illegal between the hours of 8:00AM and 9:00PM; the amendment, passed after its fourth reading at a city council meeting on the same day, will extend the ban to a 24/7 timescale.
The crowd that gathered was diverse: families with children, young people and the elderly, all united in their anger and opposition towards the bylaw change. Chalks were given out for people to illustrate their own responses to the council’s decision—onto the exact object of contention, the sidewalk. Speaking with members of the community, many expressed their despair. One protestor’s said in response to the council, “To say to the city that they treat the homeless and the poor like dirt. And that includes the mentally ill, that includes the drug addicts, and that includes anybody that doesn’t fit into their image of society.”
Katrina Plamondon, the UBCO nursing professor who organised the event, gave a speech to the crowd expressing her “outrage” at hearing about the council’s decision to pass the bylaw.
“I was deeply disappointed when I heard how this bylaw proposal was passed in council chambers. It illustrated the benign, practical extension of the tools that bylaw officers have to deal with people that have become a so-called “problem”, especially for people who might be trying to access the city’s growing restaurant district.”
Plamondon also stated, “There was no discussion in this third reading of the bylaw, it was passed unanimously, and today we sit outside in an effort to make sure the city hears our voices while this bylaw has been passed.”
At this point in her speech, cheers and shouts of “Shame! Shame!” erupted from protestors. And this was a message that came from many of the drawings on the sidewalks: a feeling of shame to be associated with the city, and an outrage towards the council for making this decision. “Kelowna can do better,” read one message. “Find homes not homeless fines,” said another. Some even connected it to US president-elect Donald Trump: “A Trump move for sure” and “Did Trump move to Kelowna?”
The bylaw will leave the homeless with even fewer options for where to go at night. The city’s parks and beaches are banned from public use at night, and the decision also coincides with homeless shelters in the city reporting that they have reached full capacity.
"We're full every night, and we're turning people away every night," said Jan Shulz, Executive Director of a shelter called Inn from the Cold.
In response to the media coverage and public anger towards the decision, last week the Mayor, Colin Basran, issued a letter detailing the reasoning behind the recent amendment. He recognised that most homeless people would be unable to pay the fines, stating, "What [the bylaw] does is create a file that can be turned over to law enforcement if the offender is involved in criminal activity. We want to ensure that downtown is a safe and welcoming place."
The word “criminal activity” seems to forget that homelessness is not a choice. “Safe” and “welcoming” seem only to apply to certain members of the community. This change will not only effectively criminalize homelessness, but many of the homeless people implicated will not be able to pay such fines, leaving them with a criminal record, furthering the amount of obstacles to overcome before getting jobs.
The protest showed a strong sense of community, with members of the public united in their outrage at the bylaw amendment, and ready to voice that outrage. Ultimately, Plamandon stated her goal with the protest as follows:
“It is an invitation to hear the members of the community that do not think it is okay to systematically discriminate. We voice our concern over this bylaw, as it sends a message that some people matter more than others, and I don’t think that’s right.”