Safe streets bylaw expanded to give Prince George police, bylaw officers power to decide what is abandoned

·4 min read
Moccasin Flats, the court-protected encampment in Prince George. (Amelia Merrick/Submitted - image credit)
Moccasin Flats, the court-protected encampment in Prince George. (Amelia Merrick/Submitted - image credit)

Council in Prince George, B.C., voted Monday to expand the scope of the city's controversial safe streets bylaw to allow RCMP and bylaw officers to remove items they deem abandoned from streets and walkways.

According to the bylaw, those officers are only obligated to store items if they are deemed to have value. If left unclaimed for more than 30 days, the items will either be thrown out or auctioned off to the highest bidder if they thought to have monetary worth.

The amendment, which council passed by six votes to two, has some unhoused people concerned they will lose their personal effects on the judgment call of a police or bylaw officer.

"It's not up to them to decide what is valuable or not because they don't know why I have certain things or why I hold certain things close," said Phoenix Parr.

Parr was unhoused and living in Moccasin Flats, the court-protected encampment near downtown Prince George, until she was offered a space at a supportive housing complex in November.

She says she's already had her personal possessions disposed of several times in the past, including when she was evicted from a B.C. Housing facility, by employees at a local shelter, and when the city demolished parts of Moccasin Flats — in violation of a court order — late last year.

Her lost belongings include letters, photos of loved ones who have died, her dog's ashes, and contact information for her friends and family, she said.

"It made me feel like I was being put in my place … completely devalued, like garbage ... [as if] I had no right to even own anything. I can't even describe how demeaning it felt," Parr said.

Kate Partridge/CBC News
Kate Partridge/CBC News

Fielding questions from council on Monday, city director of public safety Adam Davey said there is still work to be done to figure out how to implement the amendment, calling it "an experiment."

The process to evaluate whether an item is abandoned, where items will be stored, how they will be stored, and what would be needed to prove ownership is still unclear.

Camp's partial demolition

The City of Prince George has previously come under fire for destroying property it said was abandoned.

Moccasin Flats was partially demolished in November 2021 by bylaw officers after they falsely claimed that all residents had been provided housing and given time to collect their belongings.

Andrew Kurjata/CBC
Andrew Kurjata/CBC

The B.C. Supreme Court justice overseeing the second attempt by city lawyers to obtain an injunction against the encampment said the move "inflicted serious harm on vulnerable people" and violated the court order to leave Moccasin Flats in place until the city could prove adequate shelter was available for residents.

The city issued an apology and withdrew its appeal to the original court decision that led to the protection of the encampment in the first place, saying in a release that it would be "re-evaluating its approach and response to homelessness and homeless encampments."

In the meantime, council passed the safe streets bylaw, which strictly limits what people can do on the streets, including where they can rest and panhandle.

The bylaw was immediately criticized by homeless advocates, academics, the community group Together We Stand, which said it was effectively criminalizing homelessness.

B.C. Assembly of First Nations Regional Chief Terry Teegee said the bylaw was "inherently racist." More than 70 per cent of the unhoused population in Prince George is Indigenous.

The new amendment to the bylaw has Joe Hermer, chair of the sociology department at the Univeristy of Toronto Scarborough and co-author of a scathing report on the safe streets bylaw, questioning council's apology for the partial demolition of Moccasin Flats.

"Was the apology sincere? And has the city learned anything from such a heavy-handed approach? I think the answer is, regretfully, no," he said on CBC's Daybreak North.

"I think it's going to certainly cause the same kind of harms that the city has already apparently apologized for."

Overnight shelter locations rejected

Also Monday, council voted down a proposal for city-sanctioned overnight sheltering locations after several councillors expressed concern over their impact on homeowners in neighbourhoods near the proposed sites.

Betsy Trumpener/CBC News
Betsy Trumpener/CBC News

Councillors voted 7-1 against the proposal. Those voting against included Coun. Cori Ramsay, who said the plan didn't go far enough.

Ramsay expressed frustration over the lack of action at the municipal level, while others observed that housing is part of the province's portfolio.

"We're stuck, we're stalemated," said Ramsay, who lamented that advocating to B.C. Housing and other provincial bodies lacks the urgency needed to address the city's deteriorating homelessness situation.

Hermer says blame lies with the city for its apparent focus on using law enforcement to deal with the issue.

"The greatest resource the city has in managing this issue is not bylaw enforcement," he said.

"… The greatest resource the city has is the views and experiences of encampment residents and unsheltered people. And yet there are no plans whatsoever to engage in conversation with them or do any relationship building."

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