Despite objections from a number of delegations at Tuesday’s council meeting, Kingston city council approved a new Community Standards Bylaw.
The stated purpose of the 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 wellbeing of the community.”
The bylaw is similar to those other municipalities already have, including Oshawa and Brampton, but it has drawn criticism for its potential disproportionate impact on Kingston’s homeless population.
Advocates for people living on the street objected to some elements of the bylaw being left too vague, potentially leading to discrimination and abuse of vulnerable people.
Work on the bylaw started almost 18 months ago, covering a wide range of activities like building materials, odours, and idling, but some have pointed to language around loitering as a means to criminalize homelessness.
With a number of amendments, the bylaw passed 10-2 with councillors citing a general, growing sense of unsafety felt by community members downtown.
“There has to be a recognition between people being uncomfortable around poverty, and then genuinely feeling unsafe,” Councillor Ridge said.
“The stories that I’m hearing from constituents more and more is that people are feeling unsafe.”
Most delegations on Tuesday night spoke out against the bylaw, saying it was an attack on the city’s most vulnerable population that will excuse their mistreatment.
John Done, a lawyer with the Kingston Community Legal Clinic, said the bylaw borders on “constructive discrimination”, being not outwardly focused on a particular demographic but having a disproportionate effect by nature.
The bylaw prohibits urinating or defecating in public spaces, drug paraphernalia in public spaces, public intoxication, and scavenging through a textile collection site.
Done said for many of Kingston’s unhoused, their existence is basically criminalized by this bylaw.
“Their very condition puts them in a circumstance where they would violate this bylaw,” Done said.
He added that city council declared an addictions and mental health crisis on January 11, and a bylaw like this wouldn’t reflect that reality.
“Council recognized that people facing homelessness and mental health and addictions needed support and that their needs are complex,” Done said.
“I’m going to urge you to avoid a simplistic approach to this, to take this back to the drawing table and remove those behaviours that are prohibited that have disproportionate impact.”
Kingston’s reputation as a city that supports its unhoused has been challenged by recent decisions made by city council, opting to end the sleeping cabins program at a city council meeting two weeks ago and being currently entrenched in an expensive legal battle in an attempt to seek an Ontario Superior Court order to dismantle and close the Belle Park encampment.
Mayor Paterson says despite how some of these actions may be construed, by and large council and city staff have made efforts to support the city’s most vulnerable, but there needs to be balance.
“This policy here tonight is not coming in a vacuum,” Paterson said.
“It’s coming in combination with unprecedented, continual investments from this council on supportive and transitional housing, and shelter spaces, and other support services… a whole mix of things we’re trying to do to support our most vulnerable residents… the very fact is that sometimes you need a balanced response on these pieces.”
Joseph Hermer, chair of the sociology department at the University of Toronto in Scarborough, said all that support is undermined by actions like passing this Community Standards Bylaw.
He said certain elements are too vague and will open the door for potential discrimination and abuse of power.
“This is a license for discrimination, and selective and arbitrary policing,” Hermer said.
“It will increase the suffering of unhoused and street involved people and in doing so will undermine the holistic outreach and social welfare intentions of the council. You cannot with one hand say you are going to help and provide support to vulnerable people… and with the other hand undermine these efforts by enacting a vagrancy offense.”
The bylaw will come into effect in May 2024, and will be reviewed after a year’s time.