By Alexandra Mehl
Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
Victoria, BC – In the wake of an unsuccessful legal challenge against the City of Victoria’s bylaw department _ a case that a tribunal called “extraordinary” for municipal enforcement – members of the city’s unhoused community hosted a rally on March 10 to share the challenges they face.
Niki Ottosen is founder of the Backpack Project in Victoria, an organization that provides supplies like tents, sleeping bags, clothing, and food to Victoria’s homeless.
Otteson filed a claim against the City of Victoria when bylaw enforcement impounded items donated to the Backpack Project, meant for unhoused individuals. The items had been delivered to a fellow advocate to establish a “respite tent” in a city-owned public park, reads the Civil Resolution Tribunal Reason for Decision.
Otteson claimed that the items were not returned in the same condition as they were taken, while some were not returned at all.
Ottesen’s claim was for $500, the estimated value of the missing items.
The City of Victoria denied these claims, stating it was within its right under a municipal bylaw to impound the items. A ticket was issued to the fellow advocate, while the tent and items were impounded due to it being prohibited on sports fields in a city park. The items were impounded on Sept. 26, 2021, and returned on Oct. 21, 2021.
The tribunal dismissed Ottesen’s claim, indicating that she had no standing because she did not have ownership of the impounded property. The items had been donated by Otteson’s mother and given to the advocate.
The tribunal also dismissed the city, which counter-claimed
$5,000 to cover a “portion” of the legal fees. For the city, “this dispute was extraordinary because it could impact the city’s ability to enforce certain bylaws if Mrs. Ottosen was successful, and so it was required to `vigorously defend’ the claim,” according to the tribunal’s decision.
“I can only imagine how hard it must be for people to file a complaint or a claim who live outside in tents, who are being harassed and displaced and traumatized on a daily basis,” said Otteson at the rally. “People who are without transportation and are constantly having to retrieve their possessions that are being impounded.”
Otteson goes on to explain that essential survival items, such as blankets, sleeping bags, and clothing, are impounded containing other things like birth certificates, ID, life saving medications and bus passes.
“Along with the loss of essential items, they also lose items of irreplaceable worth, including family photos, journals, artworks, and the ashes of loved ones,” said Otteson.
For Victoria’s homeless, this dispute is only the tip of the iceberg pertaining to issues with the city’s bylaw enforcement.
Patricia Nataucappo, and her husband, Kyle Rodway, have lived on Pandora Street for the last three years.
Nautocappo explained that one day prior to the rally she and her husband had their belongings impounded.
“Your stuff still gets stolen every day,” said Natucappo.
“There’s still one victim every single day.”
“They quarter us off and then they tape us off,” said Nataucappo. “Then they take everything that they put inside the tape.”
“Then they go and lock it away somewhere telling you that it’s safe,” she continued.
Nataucappo goes on to explain that when they get their belongings back, often items of value, such as electronics, have not been returned.
“We’ve always gotten our clothes back, we’ve always gotten our stuff back, but it’s always been moldy and it’s always been without our monetary electronics,” said Nataucappo.
Trent Smith, is homeless in Victoria. He became unhoused over the pandemic when the Fairfield Hotel closed down without giving him proper notice. He lost roughly $10,000 worth of belongings, he said.
“Bylaw is out there every day or every second or third day, but they come out with the intention of impounding, not the intention of just enforcement,” said Trent. “It’s not about just making sure people are okay, and that everything is good. It’s about bullying people and controlling people.”
Before becoming homeless, Smith had previously worked in the hospitality industry for 30 years.
“I’ve taken care of people, 1/8and 3/8 this is different. I’m not used to this,” said Smith when reflecting on his experiences living unhoused. “It rips you apart from the inside?just having to watch this and see this on a daily basis.”
Smith would like to see a level of human sensitivity in the enforcement.
“I see everybody around me get harassed, and have 1/8their 3/8 stuff impounded and stolen, not just myself,” he said.
Water hose allegations
Karen Mills, an outreach worker who had previously been unhoused for eight years, spoke at the rally claiming she has witnessed bylaw enforcement use a water hose in the morning so that homeless people would pack up and move along.
“I wasn’t a person, because I was a homeless person,” said Mills. “Today, I’m not homeless, and my voice does count.”
Nataucappo also claimed to have witnessed the use of the water hose, though she said it has not happened in roughly three years.
“I’ve watched them show up there at six o’clock in the morning and start, you know, spraying the water hose at them, and that stopped real quick,” said Nataucappo. “We had to stay on the block in order to get that stopped.”
When asked, the City of Victoria Bylaw Department denied these claims.
Director of Bylaw Shannon Perkins explained that Victoria’s officers enforce two main bylaws regulated in “city owned public spaces” that pertain to unhoused individuals. These are Streets and Traffic, and Parks Regulations.
Perkins wrote that the Street and Traffic Bylaw regulates the “safe passage of people, bikes and vehicles” on sidewalks, bike lanes, and streets. The maintenance of this bylaw also includes ensuring city departments can do their jobs, such as sanitation and refuse removal, parking services and electrical services, wrote Perkins.
With the Parks Regulations bylaw officers ensure that those using temporary shelter are lawfully in permitted areas within permitted times, said Perkins. Additionally, they must ensure that others can use the park safely.
“Each person is dealt with on an individual basis and enforcement decisions are based on their ability to comply either over time or on any day,” wrote Perkins.
Though not all unhoused individuals experience mental health, drug addiction, and other ailments, in the cases that individuals do, it impacts their ability to comply, she said.
“It certainly is a dominant factor,” wrote Perkins. “For these reasons, compliance can take several days or weeks to achieve. This is why tents will remain up, despite bylaw officer attendance.”
When asked about extreme weather, Perkins wrote that the city does not require unhoused individuals to tear down structures during heavy rainfall, and with freezing temperatures they are “anxiously engaged in getting people inside.”
The enforcement that bylaw does during extreme weather like windstorms, wrote Perkins, is to move people away from hazards such as falling limbs.
With impounded property, items are “sorted, cataloged, and stored” for thirty days.
“City staff work very hard to ensure that items of value are retained, documented and photographed so they can be returned to rightful owners,” wrote Perkins.
Bylaw officers are authorized to impound items when they are unlawfully placed, she wrote.
“Our goal is to help people understand the rules, coordinate with other service providers to assist in this understanding, provide education and warning before conducting any impounds. Our goal is voluntary compliance,” wrote Perkins.
One third are Indigenous
According to the 2020 Greater Victoria Point-in-Time Homelessness Count and Housing Needs Survey the top three barriers to securing housing are high rental prices, low income and lack of options available.
Ninety-two per cent of respondents in the survey indicated that they want permanent housing. Thirty-five per cent identified as Indigenous, and 45 respondents out of the 854 surveyed identified as Nuu-chah-nulth. Of the Indigenous respondents, 12 per cent are on a waitlist for on-reserve housing, 15 per cent for urban Aboriginal housing, and seven per cent are on both.
Single individuals may not consider putting themselves on a waitlist, because these housing opportunities often prioritizes families, reads the report.
Of the 84 youth respondents surveyed, 36 per cent identified as Indigenous.
“We have so many Indigenous youth on our streets that are not getting the care that they need,” said Mills. “They’re out there 1/8and 3/8 they’re trying to survive.”
“It’s heart wrenching for me to give somebody a tent and watch their home being displaced every single morning when I gave them a home the night before,” said Mills. “We need better treatment of these people. Nobody deserves or chooses to be homeless.”
The Mayor and City Council did not respond for comment.
Alexandra Mehl is a Local Journalism Initiative Reporter with the HA-SHILTH-SA. The LJI program is federally funded.