This article was previously published on GuelphToday.
City council is considering a new bylaw aimed at helping keep public spaces safe, but some unhoused community members are calling it an attack on their means of survival.
Dubbed the ‘public space use bylaw,’ if passed, it would dictate what can and can’t be done on city property when it comes to encampments.
Namely, encampments in spaces with competing public use would only be permitted at night, so tents and belongings would have to be packed up and removed during daylight hours. But they would be prohibited entirely in ‘sensitive public spaces’ like recreational trails and fountains.
Among other things, it would also prohibit the use of the city’s electrical outlets, outdoor faucets and fountains. Meanwhile, building supplies, water or refuse could not be gathered and stored on city property unless kept inside a temporary structure not banned through the bylaw.
Propane cylinders could not be kept in an enclosed space, in direct sunlight, or near a heat source.
Matthew Delaney, one of the people who has been living in the encampment in St. George’s Square, said it seems as though the bylaw is favouring upper-class people who don’t want to “deal with the eyesore.”
“Like what do they want us to do? They’re pretty much setting us up for failure to freeze to death,” he said.
Coun. Rodrigo Goller, who helped to bring the motion forward, said it stemmed from safety concerns after a tent fire broke out in St. George’s Square last month.
“We said we need to put some guidelines to make sure that people are safe, people who are living in encampments and folks that are using public spaces,” he said. “And the fact that there was another fire over the weekend reinforces that we need to have some guidelines about what is acceptable and what is not acceptable in public space.”
For instance, if you’re using a propane heater, the bylaw provides guidelines to make sure “there’s nothing being done that creates risk for someone unsheltered or for people that are also using public spaces.”
However, he said they want to make sure they "are not criminalizing poverty,” adding that while the city and county work to address the housing crisis, there are no quick solutions, and in the meantime there need to be guidelines for safe use of public space.
Regarding encampments being prohibited during the day, Goller said when drafting the bylaw, staff also considered “best practices” and what other communities were doing for shared spaces “so that all our community can use the space equally.”
It prohibits encampments in playgrounds, for example, so kids aren’t prevented from playing in the park, he said. The same goes for other spaces like tennis courts and baseball diamonds.
As to whether a place like St. George’s Square could fall under that category, he said he’s not sure yet.
“That’s something that we’ll have to figure out. There are a lot of concerns from downtown merchants about the presence of encampments in the downtown, and they’ve been hearing from their customers that they’re not frequenting the downtown as much, because it doesn’t feel safe sometimes, or doesn’t feel as welcoming.
“So that’s certainly a concern. But folks have a right to live. And if they are unhoused, they have the right to have somewhere safe to live.
“It is a very unfortunate situation. But the reality is that without substantial programming and funding from the federal and provincial level, municipalities cannot resolve this issue alone,” he said, adding that the city is looking into different types of housing and shelter, and trying to determine what might be missing.
“We have a lot of work that we need to be doing on our end,” he said. “In the meantime, while we do that groundwork, while we figure out how to resolve this problem at the local level, we still need to make sure that everyone in our community can benefit from public spaces.”
As to how effective it’s going to be, Delaney highly doubts people will move their tents since it’s a bylaw matter, not a criminal one.
“What are you going to do? Give us fines and then what? Squeeze blood from a stone? We’re all on welfare and ODSP. So those fines are not going to get paid anyway.”
Still, he said the bylaw will be “very upsetting” for a lot of people living rough.
“We have rights. You can’t deem us to be nowhere; there’s not enough room in the shelter system for everybody anyway, even if they were willing to go.”
Noelle Martin, who is currently unhoused, agrees.
Martin has a campsite on the edge of town as a backup for when she can’t get into the shelter, though she’s friends with many of the people living downtown and in St. George’s Square.
“I think it’s absolutely crazy. They’re pretty much targeting everything,” she said. “Having to pack up during the day, that doesn’t make it feasible to actually have anything at that point.”
Like Delaney, she doesn’t think the shelter system is equipped to take on the extra people if her friends’ encampments are shut down.
“Is this supposed to be some solution to the problem? It sounds like it’s more of an attack on our means of survival,” she said.
However, Stepping Stone executive director Gail Hoekstra said they do have room, and have lifted the maximum capacity for the winter while trying to accommodate a space for everyone to sleep.
“We are trying our best to be responsive to our community members that are sleeping outside in the best way we can,” she said.
Meanwhile, Chantalle N., who relies on the shelter system but has friends living rough in town, said she doesn’t think the bylaw will work, that people won’t pack up their tents, and won’t be able to pay any accrued fines.
“I don’t see it being effective,” she said “I think it’s just going to cause disaster.”
Even if tents are packed up, she said that would only expose garbage and drug paraphernalia.
“I don’t think it’s fair to anybody, the city or (the people living rough),” she said.
As to the propane, Martin said she’s not sure how those living rough would be able to keep them under the bylaw’s guidelines.
“Where would they go?” she asked.
'I wouldn't wish it on my worst enemy'
To keep warm on frigid nights, Delaney and his friend Brian Slade line their tents with emergency blankets for insulation, heating up the small space with a propane-fuelled heater.
Earlier this winter, Delaney, Slade, and others tenting in the square were using a space heater plugged into a power outlet. But when the power source was shut off and temperatures continued to drop, they turned to propane.
Among other things, frostbite is a constant worry; Slade has been hospitalized for frostbite on his index finger in the past.
In January, temperatures at times hit minus 30 with the windchill. Delaney said living and sleeping outside in that kind of cold is “torturous.”
“I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy,” he said.
Jacky, who has been living rough since she had to move out of 90 Carden, keeps her tent on the outskirts of town, preferring to keep to herself.
Her tent doesn’t have a front door, so she’s wrapped it in layers of bubble wrap and tarps to keep the wind out. It’s a summer tent, meaning the material is thin, so she’s used blue duct tape to cover the walls with emergency blankets, much like Slade and Delaney. In a swamp-like area with a lot of moisture, she uses wood chips to keep the area around her tent dry.
But when the temperature dips like it has in recent weeks, that’s not enough, which is why she, and others, resort to heaters that run on propane.
“We do need propane. That is crucial – the most imperative thing to surviving” cold Canadian nights, she said.
“In this cold, even if you had a fire outside your tent, it would not be enough,” she said. “Anybody who is making these choices, I don’t think they would last 48 hours (out here).”
Slade said it doesn’t feel like they’re being heard by policymakers.
“We’re just normal people trying to make do with what we can,” said Slade. He said he and others have no family to turn to, and nowhere else to go. “We’re just trying to live.”
Since it’s only a draft, the circumstances of the bylaw could change before it comes into effect, potentially on March 1.
Goller said council is anticipating a lot of community feedback about what should and shouldn’t be in the bylaw, “so that when council approves this bylaw, we make the necessary changes to make sure that it is creating safe use of public space for everyone.”
“I would just encourage people to talk about this bylaw to their friends, to their neighbours. Any suggestions on what we can do now to make sure that people are safe and make sure that public space is usable by everyone in our community would be greatly appreciated,” he said.
Council is set to meet to discuss the bylaw on Feb. 14. It’s a chance for community members to delegate, sharing their thoughts on the bylaw. Anyone wishing to delegate needs to sign up by Feb. 9.