Editorial note: The following is a submitted op-ed piece regarding a City of Kingston draft bylaw which is open for public feedback until August 18, 2023. The views and opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of Kingstonist.
In a media release last month, the City of Kingston released an online draft of their new “Community Standards” by-law, asking for feedback from Kingston residents, community groups, and businesses on the content of the current draft and its perceived effectiveness in fostering “a clean and enjoyable environment where everyone feels included.”
Citing a Special City Council Meeting that took place more than a year ago – on June 29, 2022 – the release vaguely describes the origin of the new by-law as the culmination of a directive from City Council for staff “to prepare a by-law that would help deter certain types of nuisance behaviours in the community.” However, the City’s release – and the so-called “Community Standards” the City is trying to push through in their new by-law – has conveniently omitted the primary reason for the Special City Council Meeting last June and the subsequent directive from City Council for a new by-law: the increasing presence and visibility of people who were unhoused and/or experiencing poverty in the downtown core.
Let’s rewind to June 2022: Chief Administrative Officer (CAO), Lanie Hurdle, and her staff had just released Report 22-183 to Council. This report, released a few days prior to the Special City Council Meeting on June 29, was written to address the twin crises of homelessness and affordable housing in Kingston – crises that have plagued the city since the 1960s and have become increasingly exacerbated since the COVID-19 pandemic. Hurdle presented five potential solutions to Council in this regard. While the first four options recommended the establishment of sanctioned and staffed tent encampments for people who are unhoused in one or more public parks, the fifth recommendation presented several policies that would, paradoxically, further discriminate against people who are unhoused and living in public spaces. These policies included the implementation of a public nuisance by-law and a by-law prohibiting shopping carts and other obstructions in the downtown core, as well as the reactivation of the Encampment Protocol – a municipal by-law that legalizes the eviction of people who are unhoused from public spaces under the threat of police violence – which had been previously suspended following the successful efforts of Mutual Aid Katarokwi Kingston (MAKK), Health Providers Against Poverty (HPAP), and other homelessness rights groups to provide people who are unhoused with a modicum of stability during the winter months.
In the meeting, City Council voted in favour of the CAO’s fifth recommendation: to enact several discriminatory policies against people who are unhoused and living in parks and other public spaces across the city. Councillors voted on several separate motions in this regard, including:
- Against the establishment of a sanctioned encampment for people who are unhoused, despite the demonstrated local need for such a space;
- To immediately reactivate the Encampment Protocol and evict people who are unhoused already living in public spaces across the city (although where they would be relocated to was unclear);
- To shorten the notice of trespass given to people who are unhoused living in public spaces from 48 hours to six hours, meaning people who are unhoused would only have six hours to leave a public space before possibly facing police violence if they refused to leave; and,
- To develop a public nuisance by-law that would target “nuisance” behaviours – in essence, legalizing the discrimination and violence people who are unhoused already experience every day in public spaces.
While it was clear to people who are unhoused and their supporters that the policies City Council approved in June 2022 would only entrench the suffering of people living in Belle Park and elsewhere, these concerns didn’t seem to matter in the face of the increasingly discriminatory attitude of some Kingstonians who felt that people who are unhoused posed a particular kind of danger to their enjoyment of public spaces.
Fast forward to today, where Kingston’s homelessness crisis has become much more dire. According to OpenData Kingston, there were 193 people who are unhoused living in Kingston as of June 2022; as of March 2023, however, there were 423 people who are unhoused living in Kingston. Reflecting this alarming trend, dozens of people who are unhoused remain steadfast in expressing their need to stay close to Belle Park and the Integrated Care Hub – Kingston’s only safe consumption site and the only truly low-barrier overnight space in the city. The determination of people who are unhoused in their demands for respect, recognition, and a better quality of life is remarkable, especially given the City’s recent request for a court order from the Superior Court of Ontario to permanently evict them from Belle Park.
Unfortunately, and despite the urgent need to address the increasing discrimination and poor quality of life experienced by people who are unhoused, the City of Kingston has gone ahead with their development of an anti-nuisance by-law that targets the survival actions of people who are unhoused and has called it the “Community Standards” by-law. While most of the drafted by-law appears relatively benign, Section 8 of the by-law (especially 8.1 to 8.9) is disturbing in its use of vaguely defined terms and blatant attack against people experiencing mental illnesses, people who use drugs, and people who are unhoused.
For example, Section 8.1 states that: “No person will engage in or permit disorderly conduct in a public place by causing a public disturbance, including by using abusive or threatening language, yelling, screaming, shouting, and/or swearing in a manner that is likely to disturb and interfere with the reasonable enjoyment of another person in a public place.”
It is well-known that people who are unhoused are more likely to experience debilitating mental illnesses and regularly use drugs due to past traumas. Indeed, it is incredibly ignorant given the substantial scientific, sociological, and psychological evidence on this topic that people who experience severe mental illnesses – which is often a significant factor in becoming unhoused – have any control over when or where they experience a mental health event that may include “abusive or threatening language, yelling, screaming, shouting, and/or swearing.” How or why the City thinks that implementing a by-law will prevent people from experiencing mental health crises is unclear. In effect, Section 8.1 serves to stigmatize and criminalize severe mental illnesses and the people experiencing them.
However, the most disturbing part of Section 8.1 is the phrase “in a manner that is likely to disturb and interfere with the reasonable enjoyment of another person in a public place.” Who does such a statement ultimately benefit? Despite the equalizing language used throughout the by-law (e.g., “no person will…”), such regulations will not be applied to all Kingstonians equally in practice. The fact that people who are unhoused are more likely to experience, and thus demonstrate, symptoms of debilitating mental illnesses inherently means that they are also more likely to come into conflict with by-laws that problematize and stigmatize these symptoms. Even more startling is the way in which Section 8.1 unflinchingly places the rights and privileges of people who do not have, or are not currently demonstrating, symptoms of abuse, trauma, or mental illnesses over those who are. The vague phrasing of the by-law exacerbates this clear power imbalance: who decides how “disturb and interfere with” or “reasonable enjoyment” is applied in such a situation? Whose “reasonable enjoyment” are we privileging and to what end? Indeed, did the City take time to consult with people who experience mental illnesses, who use drugs, who are unhoused, or any of the myriad local organizations who work with these communities in the drafting of these “Community Standards”? If not, we should ask whose “Community Standards” are being included in the by-law and, more importantly, whose perspectives are being excluded.
I’m not the first person to highlight this sub-section as an unconscionable attempt to control the behaviour of people who are unhoused. Indeed, there are many other issues with Section 8 that cannot be properly discussed in an op-ed format: Section 8.2 criminalizes people’s biological needs to urinate or defecate in public spaces in the absence of safe housing and/or year-round access to public washrooms; Section 8.5 would make it easier for transphobic folks to object to others’ rights to use whatever washroom best aligns with their gender identity; Sections 8.7 and 8.9 are antithetical to the City’s supposed attempts to decriminalize drug-use, with Section 8.9 going so far as to punish people for overdosing in public spaces. To see what others have said about these sub-sections, visit the online draft of the “Community Standards” by-law.
According to the City of Kingston, the express purpose of the “Community Standards” by-law is to make Kingston a “more livable” place. My response to the City is: for whom are you hoping to make Kingston a “more livable” place? It clearly is not people experiencing mental illnesses, people who use drugs, or people who are unhoused. In fact, the City – by implementing this by-law – would be demonstrating a deliberate political will to make Kingston a less livable place for our city’s most vulnerable residents.
This op-ed is not criticizing the City’s well-intentioned efforts to increase the dwindling affordable housing stock in Kingston; it is a criticism of how the City has treated, and continues to treat, people who are unhoused and their attempts to survive as unsightly, dirty, disorderly, dangerous, and even criminal via evictions, litigation, the Encampment Protocol, and now, the “Community Standards” by-law. In a world that is becoming increasingly characterized by income inequity, by financial precarity, by the fact that more and more people are a paycheck away from homelessness themselves, we must ask ourselves what sort of community we want to be. What “Community Standards” do we want to uphold? Standards that punish people for their poverty and trauma? Or standards that lead with equity, compassion, and equal human rights for all? If the latter, the new “Community Standards” by-law is certainly not the answer.
If you are interested in participating in the feedback process for the “Community Standards” by-law, please visit this link. Feedback will be accepted until August 18, 2023.
Sophie Lachapelle is a long-time Kingston resident and PhD Student at the University of Ottawa.
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