A coalition of advocacy organizations is taking a previous Barrie charter amendment proposal to the United Nations as an example of a policy that criminalizes homelessness in Canada.
In May and June, the city north of Toronto proposed and then rejected two bylaw amendments that would have made it illegal for individuals and charitable groups to distribute food, literature, clothing, tents and tarps to homeless people on public property.
The proposal was sent to staff for review in June, but was discussed again at a community safety committee meeting Tuesday. A date has not yet been set for another council vote on the charter.
After Tuesday’s meeting, the Canadian Drug Policy Coalition and Pivot Legal sent proposed charter amendments to the UN rapporteurs on the right to adequate housing and extreme poverty. The intergovernmental agency has make a call for laws affecting homelessness for a report on the decriminalization of homelessness, with a submission deadline of early October.
The proposed amendments were shared along with several other policy examples from British Columbia.
“We are very concerned about the direction the city is going. [of Barrie] is taking and that’s why we thought it was important to raise them along with other statutes across the country for consideration and context for United Nations analysis,” said DJ Larkin, executive director of the drug policy coalition.
Alex Nuttall, the city’s mayor, did not grant CBC Toronto an interview for this story. In an email, he said the city council is “confused” about why the organizations involved sent the proposals to the UN for consideration.
“The Council’s intention was clear: not to prevent individual acts of kindness,” he said.
In its report, the coalition says it is not aware of any substantive changes to the proposal. At Tuesday’s meeting, city staff said the council will have a revised proposal for the bylaws by the end of the calendar year.
When introduced, the proposed bylaw amendments also appeared to make it illegal for charitable organizations to provide supplies to homeless people on city property. CBC Toronto asked Nuttall if there would still be restrictions on what charities do in the revised bylaws amendment proposals. Nuttall did not respond before publication.
Advocates want the amendments rescinded entirely
The coalition’s report to the UN was supported by the Barrie Housing and Homelessness Justice Network, of which Michael Speers is a member. He says they would ultimately like to see the proposed bylaw amendments rescinded.
“If they are determined to move forward with some type of statute [amendment]”If they want to modernize the language, we will be happy to present a language written from a human rights perspective,” he said.
Speers also criticized the city’s current approach to the homeless problem.
“They don’t want to offer any real solutions that will uplift people, they basically want to push them out,” he said.
Rob Romanek, president of civic engagement organization Engage Barrie, echoed Speers’ calls for the proposals to be rescinded.
“To backtrack and say, ‘No, that’s not what we meant.’ Well, then take them out because that’s what it says,” Romanek said.
Responding to criticism, the mayor said he has been “a long-time advocate for treatments and community support.”
In a separate email, a city spokesperson said Barrie will spend at least $1.6 million on initiatives such as a warming center and food safety programs over the next two years.
In preparing the coalition report, Larkin said Barrie’s proposal stood out as a particularly bad example of criminalization of people experiencing homelessness.
“At the United Nations level, we hope to demonstrate how Canada’s failure to address the overlapping crises of toxic drugs, homelessness and income insecurity is being reflected on our streets,” Larkin said.