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Legalizing Survival: Public space and the criminalizing of the homeless in the age of COVID


Across North America, the COVID-19 pandemic has strained social services and shelters serving the homeless, forcing many onto the streets and exacerbating conflict about the right to use public spaces as a matter of survival. In Halifax, Nova Scotia, the largest city in Atlantic Canada, the pandemic brought a surge in homelessness and worsened the lack of available beds in shelters. These trends have increased the need for homeless individuals to call public spaces home, a feature of the pandemic that has caused public uproar, calling for the removal of temporary shelters in parks and public spaces. Across Nova Scotia, there are 477 people without housing, and up to 80% are regularly living outside in public spaces. According to the Halifax Regional Municipality Homelessness statistics, the pandemic has greatly exacerbated homelessness: the Halifax homeless population has increased by 86% between October 2019 to March 2021 (from 106 to 477 today). In Halifax, people experiencing homelessness throughout the region seek relief from the housing and public health services that are concentrated there. Despite the arrival of people hoping to break out of the cycle of homelessness, a situation made more dire in light of the pandemic, Halifax’s streets and public spaces have historically been governed by laws that disproportionately impact the homeless population. Through bylaws that ban behaviors that are necessary for survival, homeless people are policed by policies that regard them as nuisances and public health hazards. Such policies are not unique to Halifax, but represent barriers for quality of life and upward mobility for homeless populations in cities around the world. The perceived tensions between public health, quality public spaces and the dignity of homeless people are compounded in the age of COVID, and a shift in planning priorities is needed to produce equitable public spaces that are sympathetic with the growing challenges faced by housing insecure individuals.

Individualizing a Systemic Problem

Homelessness is strongly stigmatized and associated with public health risks, a coupling that is exacerbated in the current health crisis. Many people view homelessness as the fault of the individual, who is often pathologized as mentally ill, addicted to drugs and taking advantage of public assistance. The most recent Halifax Panhandling Report by the Halifax Regional Council even describes a homeless population that is “...addict[ed] to drugs or alcohol, suffer[s] from disabilities and mental illness, like schizophrenia…[And are] Dropouts from society who do not wish to follow rules, or pursue traditional work to support themselves.” However, reducing the afflictions of untreated addiction and mental illness, and their association with homelessness to a matter of choice, vastly underestimates the complex nature of these issues; the resources and control to manage these challenges are often out of reach for this group. In other words, the language of the Panhandling Report paints an image of homelessness as being a result of individual lifestyle choice, contributing to the narratives of stigma and lack of compassion for street involved people.

To understand the sources of Halifax’s (and other cities’) challenges with homelessness, we must also look to the structural limitations of accessibility to affordable housing and how social services are managed. Nearly half of Haligonians are renters (significantly above average for Canadian cities), and the BC Not for Profit Housing Association has described Halifax as one of the most unhealthy rental markets in Canada. This strain has been exacerbated by the economic crisis of the pandemic, leading to temporary rent control measures in Halifax. Over the past two decades, non-profits and developers have been greatly challenged by the task of creating affordable housing. As a result, relatively few new affordable units that have been developed to accommodate the long waitlist of applicants. This despite the concerted efforts from groups like the Housing and Homelessness Partnership to produce affordable units. According to the manager of a homeless advocacy non-profit, housing is becoming even more burdensome as rents continue to rise, while employment and personal finances become more precarious in light of the pandemic.

Halifax’s Nuisance and Smoking Bylaw

Image 1: Photo by Lisa Berglund; A sign prohibiting smoking on Spring Garden Road, a main commercial street.

Even though homelessness can be explained through known systemic causes, many policies focus on reforming the behaviors of this population when they are in public space. In 2018, a widely publicized and pioneering policy banned all smoking in Halifax public spaces (see images 1 and 2). The Nuisance and Smoking Bylaw prohibits vaping, and smoking tobacco and marijuana in public space, except for in designated areas. This policy was passed by the Council of Halifax Regional Municipality, and is enforced by by law officers and the Halifax Police who are tasked with issuing citations for violations. While this policy was celebrated as a milestone for public health by advocates and non-smokers, the language of the ban further stigmatized the homeless population, in effect labeling them as signs of disorder in public spaces. Described as a “Nuisance and Smoking Bylaw”, the policy also bans behaviors deemed nuisances, mostly focusing on the alteration or vandalism of public spaces, like the disturbance of plants or trees, street lighting, signage, or any other damage to municipal property, in addition to requiring compliance with street closures.

However, of particular concern for the homeless population, this bylaw bans the use of shopping carts outside of businesses that own them, as well as obstructions to pedestrian thoroughfares, among other behaviors that are integral to the lifestyles of street-involved people (Halifax Regional Municipality, 2018). Even if other behaviors of the homeless population labeled as ‘nuisances’ were not included in the bylaw, the homeless population is disproportionately affected by a smoking ban: according to the Health and Homeless in Halifax Report, about 90% of the homeless population smokes cigarettes, and about 60% smoke marijuana (Affordable Housing Association of Nova Scotia, 2012). While few tickets have been issued for public smoking, for the homeless population the impacts of the fines for these crimes could be insurmountable if enforced, and result in garnishing of government assistance checks. Fines for smoking can be up to $2,000 with a minimum fine of $25, and using a shopping cart in public space can be fined up to $1,000 with a minimum fine of $100. Even the minimum fine of $25 can be incredibly burdensome for this population that risks incarceration if they are not able to pay. Street-involved people with a criminal record may then find it difficult to break the cycle of homelessness as many employers require background

checks, as do housing providers.

Image 2: Photo by Lisa Berglund; A sign prohibiting smoking, citing the anti-smoking bylaw.

Other Anti-Homeless Policies

Image 3: Photo by Lisa Berglund; A sign in a park prohibiting “loitering” even though it is a leisure space.

The recent smoking ban is not the only instance of public spaces being managed in a way that is disproportionately punitive towards the homeless population. While panhandling is not explicitly forbidden, acts that often accompany panhandling are criminalized in public spaces. This includes loitering in doorways which might be necessary during inclement weather (see image 3). According to The Panhandling Report, solicitation is also forbidden when it is obstructive to public thoroughfares or when the solicitor is “intoxicated by alcohol or drugs.”. Although panhandling is not a crime per se, homeless individuals who are disproportionately susceptible to these behaviors may still be criminally charged under The Liquor Control Act. This presents serious risks to the wellbeing of this population as the Point in Time Count by the Affordable Housing Association of Nova Scotia found that panhandling is the second largest source of income for this group after government assistance.

Similarly, the Respecting Municipal Parks Bylaws, that were passed by the Council of Halifax Regional Municipality, are upheld by the Parks and Recreation Department. The Municipal Parks Bylaws aim to protect parks from activities that may cause damage to park property. While these bylaws sensibly aim to protect the condition of the parks for its users, some aspects of the bylaws in effect criminalize survival behaviors for the homeless population. Under the rules that govern uses of park space, camping is forbidden, as well as using parks between 10pm and 5am. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic and strain on shelters, the need to sleep in parks is heightened. According to a homeless advocacy non-profit, while more individuals can be seen sleeping outside in such areas, law enforcement has also been more lax due to the pandemic. However, the increase in temporary shelters in parks has been met with disapproval from those who claim: they present public health and aesthetic concerns; and the public should have been consulted before their installation (image 4).

Image 4: Photo by Madison Kennedy; COVID-19 Temporary Shelter in a park near downtown.

The Municipal Parks Bylaws also stipulate that, “No person shall bring, carry or transport any waste, refuse or garbage into any park.” In addition to penalizing the lucrative act of recycling or ‘binning’ for the homeless population, this bylaw leaves it up to law enforcement to determine which of someone else’s belongings qualify as “garbage.” Violations to these bylaws are punishable by fines up to $10,000. In addition to these policies, anti-homeless architecture such as benches that do not allow for sleeping, or spikes on horizontal surfaces like low walls can be seen throughout Halifax, and are popular in cities around the world (see image 5). Regardless, as a whole, this suite of policies not only targets the homeless population, but also describes their survivalist acts as “nuisances.” In reality, their use of such resources and spaces is fundamental to their survival, making public spaces especially valuable to the homeless population. These resources in public spaces are even more valuable in light of a pandemic that has strained all other forms of resources for homeless individuals.

Image 5: Photo by Lisa Berglund; Anti-homeless benches that prevent sleeping, standard in Halifax bus stops.

While many policies criminalize acts associated with homelessness, there are some resources that have been made available by the municipality. This includes providing several warming and cooling stations in public spaces, and shelters during inclement weather. Additionally, in 2019 the city partnered with local business groups through their Interim Public Safety Strategy to implement the Navigator Street Outreach Program that provides support to street-involved individuals as they attempt to ‘navigate’ various services like addiction counselling, mental health support, income assistance and legal advocacy. The province has also recognized the unique vulnerability to COVID-19 faced by homeless individuals in Halifax and will prioritize them in their vaccination strategy beginning in April.

A Call to Action

Halifax is not alone in these policies; the practice of removing homeless individuals and their property from public space can be seen in cities across Canada. As a center for social services in Atlantic Canada, Halifax and other cities have the opportunity to break this cycle of homelessness. This is a particularly important goal for planners in light of the pandemic. Concentrating on alleviating structural causes to homelessness, like provision of affordable housing and localized social services, instead of punishing individuals for survivalist behaviors (in effect merely erasing them from public space) is central to this. Further, planners in cities that have adopted punitive regulations on public spaces also have the ability to shape public space in a way that regards it as a resource vital for the survival of street-involved people. Barring the homeless population from public spaces dehumanizes them to the degree that many mainstream planning policies consider them somehow outside of what we deem the ‘public.’

If used compassionately, the tools of urban planning could aid in the creation of inclusive and supportive spaces for the homeless population. Planners can advocate for the homeless population using their expertise on urban policy and the spatial organization of cities to pursue the following calls to action:

  • Coordinate with advocacy groups and other city departments: Because so many different municipal departments may be responsible for regulating public space in ways that are exclusionary, planners must build relationships across city departments in order to advocate for more inclusive policies. These efforts should include input from homeless advocacy groups who understand the unique challenges this population faces. This coordination and collaboration is particularly important as resources are strained due to the pandemic.

  • Amend bylaws: Bylaws should be revised in ways that are more compassionate to the homeless population, taking into consideration their daily struggles and needs. These amendments should also take into account the ways that punishments for infractions are more burdensome to the homeless population than others.

  • Advocate for local oversight of service provision: While many municipal level planners may not have control over the degree or types of funding they receive for homeless services from higher levels of government, planners should advocate for more localized rights to service provision that more closely align with locally specific needs. These needs should be informed by advocacy groups familiar with locally specific challenges, including the threat of contracting COVID-19 that is increased in urban areas.

  • Promote cultural shifts in planning around the role of public space: Planners should view public spaces as resources for vulnerable populations and not only as recreational areas or as city branding tools; planners have the opportunity to be advocates and change the narrative around who belongs in public space.

While these actions aim to reduce the criminalization of homelessness, the support for homeless people will first and foremost come from the long-term solution of permanent supportive housing with appropriate mental health and substance abuse recovery services. However, if planners pursue the above calls to action, we may begin to rethink the role of public space, and whose input is needed to make decisions about how it is managed. We have the opportunity to rethink what constitutes the ‘public’ that urban planning is meant to serve, and lift the homeless population to a more dignified and respectful position as part of our communities, instead of pushing them further to the margins.

Madison Kennedy recently graduated from Dalhousie’s School of Architecture and Planning with a bachelor of community design, honours, with a concentration in urban design and planning. Her undergraduate thesis focused on planning for equality by examining spaces, amenities and services utilized by the Halifax homeless population.

Lisa Berglund is a professor at the School of Planning at Dalhousie University. Her work focuses on social justice and community organization in the context of gentrification and other types of neighborhood change.




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