On Tuesday, Nov. 21, 2023, Kingston City Council will debate a new community standards bylaw, which, if approved, could have widespread ramifications for the ways Kingston residents conduct themselves in public. According to the document, which was recently approved by the City’s Administrative Policies Committee, the bylaw was established with an eye toward greater health and safety within the community.
The document reads, “The purpose of this bylaw is to promote a healthy, safe and vibrant community for all residents and visitors in the City of Kingston by regulating and prohibiting activities or conditions that interfere with the public’s right to use and enjoy public spaces or that negatively impact the safety, comfort or well-being of the community.”
The bylaw covers a wide range of public behaviours, including:
- Building Materials and Construction Dust
- Feeding of Wildlife
- Textile Collection Sites and Flyers
- Safe Use of Public Spaces
- Retail Establishment Shopping Cart Standards
- Damage to City Property
City Council directed staff to prepare a “public nuisance bylaw” back in June of 2022, after the City had received multiple complaints regarding the behaviours of unhoused individuals. A report prepared by City of Kingston Chief Administrative Officer (CAO) Lanie Hurdle noted, “Staff have received an increasing number of complaints from members of the public who are concerned for their safety due to behaviours exhibited by unhoused individuals or equipment/items displayed in public spaces, including on City sidewalks.”
While some of the rules included in the proposed bylaw are consistent with existing municipal policies, such as a requirement for construction materials to be contained and secured, it’s the section regarding the use of public spaces that has some people concerned the document will have an adverse impact on the city’s unhoused population.
Under the “Safe Use of Public Spaces” section (Section 9 within the document), the bylaw prohibits individuals from engaging in behaviour that is,”likely to disturb or interfere with the reasonable enjoyment of another person in a public place.” Such conduct includes “causing a public disturbance, including by using abusive or threatening language or being intoxicated by alcohol or other substance.”
Section 9 also prohibits physical alteractions in public, loitering, sexually lewd activity in public, and the use and display of drug paraphernalia near public parks. Individuals who violate the bylaw could be subject to a hefty financial penalty, with fines ranging from a minimum of $500 to a maximum of $100,000.
Ahead of Tuesday’s Council meeting, members of the community are speaking out against the proposed bylaw, as they allege the document “punishes residents for living in poverty.” In a news release issued by YGK Encampment Support Network (KESN), members expressed their “deep concerns” with many aspects of the bylaw, notably Section 9.
Sophie Lachapelle, PhD candidate and member of KESN, wrote, “Research has shown us that punishing people who experience visible poverty for simply being in public spaces is not effective, especially since these individuals often have nowhere else to go.”
Lachapelle added, “Bylaws like the proposed Community Standards Bylaw do not meaningfully improve public safety or quality of life when the behaviours they try to manage are rooted in poverty. In fact, bylaws like this have been shown to make poverty worse, not better. Even when people aren’t fined, bylaws like this result in more trauma [and] more potential for problematic behaviours, and are a drain on municipal resources that could be allocated more effectively to reduce poverty.”
Retired United Churh minister Dawn Clarke said the bylaw is another example of the City’s “disturbing” treatment of those living in poverty. “The City’s response to people experiencing visible poverty over the last year has been very disturbing, including applying to the Superior Court of Ontario for a court order to evict encampment residents in Belle Park, ending the Sleeping Cabin project last week, and now a bylaw that seems to target people experiencing visible poverty because they have nowhere else to go in the absence of affordable or supportive housing,” Clarke wrote, adding, “Kingston is becoming a meaner city.”
When the bylaw was first brought forward earlier this month to the Administrative Policies Committee, it received unanimous support from the five councillors who serve on that committee. In a report distributed in advance of that November 9, 2023 committee meeting, Jenna Morley, Director of Legal Services and City Solicitor, noted staff undertook “extensive consultations” before preparing the draft bylaw.
This past summer, the City conducted a public engagement process to gauge community members’ thoughts on the proposed bylaw. According to staff, Section 9 of the document drew mixed reactions from respondents, with business owners “emphasizing the need for tools to address disruptive street behaviour and prioritize public safety.”
However, the report also noted sentiments from some respondents that the proposed bylaw is “targeting” certain populations within the city. Staff wrote, “Critics argue that punitive measures like fines may not be effective and could exacerbate negative behaviour. Specific concerns are raised about potential discrimination and the lack of support for underserved groups.”
As members of the public expressed concern over the impact of the bylaw on the city’s unhoused population, Morley’s report noted a number of public services, including those meant to support vulnerable people within the community. Such services include public washrooms, Consumption and Treatment Services (CTS), street outreach, emergency shelters, and other housing supports.
As for how the new policies will be enforced, municipal bylaw enforcement officers respond to violations on a reactive basis after complaints are received from members of the public. Despite the significant financial penalties included in the document, Morley’s report explained officers can undertake “progressive enforcement action” based on “education, dialogue, warnings, and notices” before actual fines are issued.
While the community standards bylaw has been subject to criticism by certain advocates, the proposed document also has its fair share of supporters, including members of SPEAKingston, who claim the bylaw will help restore safety in the downtown core. “We have heard from many local business owners that the downtown area is anything but safe. We have heard stories of theft, harassment of and physical threats to staff and customers, public defecation, drug use and other activities,” wrote SPEAKingston chair Peter Kingston in a release issued to Kingstonist.
Kingston added, “We applaud the development of the community standards bylaw as a first step. Importantly, this bylaw is aimed at addressing behaviours and not aimed at any particular demographic as previous laws around vagrancy tended to be.” Not only has the group come out in support of the proposed bylaw, but SPEAKingston has also called for additional measures, including an increased police presence downtown as well as the closure of the Integrated Care Hub (ICH) at its current location.
Other policies of note within the bylaw include limiting the idling of a vehicle or boat to one minute within a 60-minute window, as well as a ban on the feeding of wildlife (except for feeding birds by hand or using private bird feeders). The proposed bylaw also attempts to stop the dumping of clothes and other textiles by requiring residents to leave such donations at “designated receptacles or bins.”
If the bylaw is approved, City staff will then be directed to prepare a bylaw enforcement strategy by the second quarter of 2024. At the same time, staff will also prepare educational resources and other materials to ensure the public is informed of the bylaw’s contents.
The proposed bylaw will be presented to Council for debate during its meeting on Tuesday, Nov. 21, 2023, at 7 p.m. inside Council Chambers. Full meeting agendas are available on the City of Kingston website. Meetings are open to the public and can be streamed live (or viewed later) on the Kingston City Council YouTube page.