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Council delays public space use bylaw pending court decision

Details of upcoming appeal ruling for City of Kingston bylaw to be factored into preparation of draft Guelph bylaw

A controversial proposal to restrict homeless encampments on city property has been shelved, at least for now.

Following a two-hour in-camera legal discussion, after hearing from numerous delegates during an hours-long special council meeting on Wednesday, council voted 10-3 to defer the bylaw until after an appeal court ruling is released and analyzed regarding a challenge of a similar bylaw in Kingston that was ruled unconstitutional through a Superior Court of Justice ruling.

No reason for the deferral, or objections to it, were provided.

“There is unity around the fact that nobody here does not care about the homeless,” Mayor Cam Guthrie said earlier in the day. “We are actually trying to figure this out … with the tools and the lane that we are in.” 

Guthrie voted against the deferral, along with councillors Christine Billings and Dan Gibson.

Wednesday’s special meeting was held to hear public feedback and for council to potentially approve the proposed draft bylaw, with council comments to be considered and the draft potentially changed ahead of a final vote set for Feb. 27.

If approved at that time, the draft bylaw was set to come into effect on March 1.

Of course, that didn’t happen.

Ahead of the meeting’s 10 a.m. start, several people protested the draft bylaw, holding signs and chanting slogans at the bottom of the steps leading up to the Basilica of Our Lady, across from the eastern end of Macdonell Street.

The protesters then made their way down to city hall and continued chanting in the lobby before filing into council chambers for the meeting.

As presented, the draft bylaw would place a series of new rules on the use of parks, public squares, sidewalks, trails and other municipally owned or operated lands. A representative of the County of Wellington asked that its lands be included as well.

Among other things, the proposal is to ban encampments in spaces with competing public use during daytime hours (permitted one hour before sunset to one hour after sunrise); establish separation distances between encampments and school properties, childcare centres, railways, waterways and cemeteries.

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. 

Additionally, propane cylinders could not be kept in an enclosed space, in direct sunlight, or near a heat source. 

It would further prohibit the use of the city’s electrical outlets, outdoor faucets and fountains.

Numerous speakers referred to the bylaw as a potential violation of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and many lamented the lack of public consultation ahead of the bylaw being drafted.

“We need real solutions and I’m disappointed in at city council for even entertaining this bylaw that does nothing to ensure the safety of our unhoused neighbours but rather makes their lives so much more difficult,” said Horeen Hassan, who called the draft bylaw an “attack” on people living in poverty.

“Are we really talking about safety or are we talking about discomfort?” she pondered. “And whose safety is being prioritized?”

“Attempting to use the public space use bylaw to rid yourselves of the people living in tents is like sweeping the room and hiding the debris under the carpet,” added Nicole Clark, representing the Guelph and District Labour Council. “Guelph needs real solutions, not cosmetic ones.”

Council heard the provisions of the draft bylaw essentially make it so propane heaters can’t be used at all, could lead to increased isolation and decreased safety for residents experiencing homelessness, would force unhoused residents to carry all their belongings with them at all times.

Several delegates chastised the perceived punitive nature of the bylaw and called for the root causes of homelessness, such as mental health and affordability issues, to be addressed before a bylaw such as the one proposed is considered.

Numerous speakers referenced a report dubbed “Upholding dignity and human rights: the Federal Housing Advocate’s review of homeless encampments,” released Tuesday by the Canadian Human Right Commission’s housing advocate.

“Encampments are not a safe or sustainable solution for housing. For people living in these encampments, every day is a matter of life and death,” the report states.

Downtown resident John Fisher recommended the city establish an encampment with servicing on the unused portion of the city-owned Guelph Land Bowling Club property on Gordon St. That site, he noted, would be away from residences, has accessible utility hook-ups and could be further supported with trailers.

“It’s not good but it’s better than we have right now,” he said.

Susan Watson suggested the county-owned parking lot off Baker Street be used for an encampment, allowing people to stay close to the support services being provided.

Under the draft bylaw, there are “hundreds” of locations throughout the city where temporary shelters would be allowed at all times, noted deputy CAO Colleen Clack-Bush.

“It’s about setting parameters about what is and isn’t permissible,” she said of the bylaw’s intent. “There are concerns on both sides of this.”

Among those permissible locations would be Royal City Park and Exhibition Park, noted Doug Godfrey, the city’s manager of public services.

Though a majority of delegates spoke out against the draft bylaw, council heard from some in support as well – largely from a handful of business owners and operators. The Guelph Downtown Business Association didn’t send a delegate to the meeting or provide specific written comments for council’s consideration, but has advocated for action in the past.

Denise Mansur, the owner of Ms.Meri Mak Boutique on Quebec Street, said customers are afraid to go downtown. 

“Encampments have become a breeding ground for crime, fires and degradation, directly impacting the safety and wellbeing of residents and businesses alike,” she said, adding her business has been vandalized, broken into and at least one customer assaulted. “It is a problem that cannot be ignored.

“It is not enough to simply turn a blind eye and dismiss these issues.”

Emma Duell of Woolwich Fine Yarns called for an outright ban on downtown encampments.

“I feel that the City of Guelph is not doing their part to keep the downtown a safe and inviting environment,” she said. “I want Downtown Guelph to thrive and there has to be laws put in place and enforced so it is safe for everyone.

“Things need to change in Guelph.”

Speaking in support of the bylaw, Susan Ratcliffe suggested the federally-owned Guelph Armoury be turned into a designated encampment space. In response, Mayor Cam Guthrie said that request has already been made.

If it’s approved and enforced, the bylaw would likely face a court challenge, noted Anthea Millikin, Legal Clinic of Guelph and Wellington County director.

“This is an issue that is ripe for challenge right now,” she said, noting legal clinics have challenged similar bylaws in other communities. “This is not the right bylaw or the right time.

“Almost anything else you could do would be better.”

There were 42 delegates registered and 75 written submissions from the public.

Among the written submissions to council were:

Joint letter from Jean Hopkins manager for the Wellington Guelph Drug Strategy, Dominica McPherson administrator for Guelph & Wellington Task Force for Poverty Elimination, and Caroline Folkman manager of Toward Common Ground – “The proposed bylaw will exacerbate challenges currently experienced by unhoused residents in Guelph. Evidence suggests that implementing bylaws of this nature can criminalize community members who are already struggling and lead to further health and social harms. The proposed bylaw will contribute to further displacement and social isolation, causing interruptions in health care, creating challenges for outreach teams and additional burden to the health care system.”

Joint letter from Melissa Kwiatkowski, CEO of Guelph Community Health Centre, Mark Walton, CEO of Guelph General Hospital, Kristin Kerr, CEO of Stonehenge Therapeutic Community, and Helen Fishburn, CEO of Canadian Mental Health Association, Waterloo Wellington – “We know that a by-law, while well-intended, has the potential to lead to greater displacement and instability, which will lead to health and social decompensation. Additionally, by-laws like this can further contribute to criminalization and stigma related to poverty, mental health, and substance use. We believe that by taking a human rights and health approach, developed in consultation with frontline health workers who have established relationships with many community members who will be impacted, will significantly minimize the potential for harm to health outcomes.”

Kristen Cairney, executive director of Wyndham House – “Given that this bylaw will cause harm to unsheltered individuals, that it is not aligned with a human-rights-based approach to housing, and that it does not take into account a lack of available shelter beds to meet the need, Wyndham House would urge council to reconsider adoption of this bylaw.”

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