Ontario city defers vote on potentially unconstitutional bylaw changes amid public outcry

Wednesday night’s meeting saw a packed council chamber of residents holding signs protesting the bylaw’s changes in Barrie Ontario. Via City of Barrie Youtube

The City of Barrie, Ont., is backtracking following public backlash on prosed bylaw changes that would have impacted agencies and people’s ability to help individuals experiencing homelessness.

Wednesday night’s meeting saw a packed council chamber of residents holding signs protesting the bylaw’s changes.

Council ultimately voted unanimously to defer the issue back to staff for further review after several legal experts said it violated the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and changes from a local organization.

The proposed amendment to Bylaw 2004-142, known as Bill 067 and 068, would prohibit the distribution of items, including food, clothing, tents or tarps in public parks or on public lands without a permit. A permit would also be required to distribute food and grocery products in public spaces.

The changes would also prohibit people from setting up tents and sunshades with more than one wall.

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Residents holding signs protesting the bylaw’s changes in Barrie Ontario. Via City of Barrie Youtube

City staff say the decision to reevaluate comes following a letter from the Busby Centre, saying it would make program changes by moving the location of its outreach van stop from the waterfront.

In a statement, the city said the intention of the bylaw was to get organizations like the Busby Centre to stop handing out food and supplies along the Barrie waterfront and instead move their outreach to private property.

While the Busby Centre’s executive director says they want to continue working with the city to develop a solution, she says the issue was greater than just their daily stop downtown.

“I don’t think it’s that simple. I think there is a lot of atrophy nationally and locally around this issue because what was stated in those bylaws was against people’s human rights,” Sara Peddle told Global News.

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“I think that really what was stated was not just about Busby Centre moving or one-stop at the lake shore. This was bigger than all of that. We’re just glad that it did get stopped because we want to make sure that people’s human rights are protected, and people’s human kindness is protected.”

The Busby Centre’s outreach van does daily stops around Barrie providing meals and support to around 200 people daily, with the stop at the Barrie spirit catcher parking lot seeing 40 to 50 people daily.

Peddle says they will now be moving that stop up two blocks to a municipal parking lot but will still have staff helping people downtown and along the waterfront.

When asked about the backlash, Barrie Mayor Alex Nuttall told Global News what they hoped to do with the proposed changes is to “dissuade” organizations from having social service programs along the waterfront and in parks.

“We’ve had a situation where I would say more than one of our social service agencies has been using a parking lot on our waterfront, which is 150 metres from the kid’s splash park, to provide, in some cases it’s lunches and in some cases harm reduction kits,” he says.

“So it creates a really difficult situation in our our poor downtown waterfront assets where you have kids who are coming with the families to go to use the splash pads that are there, and at the same time, you have social service programming taking place.”

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But Nuttall says the Busby Centre’s decision to move its outreach bus stop from the waterfront addresses this issue.

“So because of the partnership and cooperation of our social service agencies, the actual changes that we were looking to make are redundant at this point because those objectives have already been achieved.”

He says the request to move the outreach bus location and other services has been something they have been asking for years.

Nuttall also says the old bylaw needed to be updated and that some of the issues people have are with language already in place. He says they will review not only this bylaw but others to ensure the language in them is up to date.

“So we saw through that process that there was wording that was from 20-some-odd years ago that needs to be brought up to date and, quite frankly, needs to reflect what we as a community feel and how we feel we should be taken care of our own and the city where we always take care of our own,” Nuttall told Global News.

“The old bylaw prohibited individuals from being able to give something as simple as a bottle of water to somebody in public spaces.”

But when looking up the original bylaw on the City of Barries website, section 7 of Bylaw 2004-142 says exemptions were made under the original bylaw for charities, organizations and individuals.

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Prohibiting individuals and charities from trying to provide support only seems to appear in the city’s proposed changes to the bylaw.

Screenshot of City of Barrie Bylaw 2004-142 section 7. Via City of Barrie website
Screenshot of proposed changes to City of Barrie Bylaw 2004-142 section 7. Via City of Barrie website

It remains to be seen what of this will stay once city staff take another look at the changes.

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Agencies say the strategy would not work

But agencies like the Busby Centre, which help people experiencing homelessness, say removing people’s ability to help would not move people away from these areas.

Peddle notes that not all people experiencing homelessness feel comfortable coming into a building for help, so they need to be able to meet people where they are, wherever that is.

“As a society, we have failed people in many ways, and so their trust of organizations and that kind of stuff, as much as we’re there and with good intent, the trust of the system is challenged. So we have to go to people and find people where they’re at to provide them with whatever resources and services we can,” she says.

She says it’s important to remember why people end up in these public spaces.

“People are in places like parks because they have nowhere else to go. It’s a choice out of a lack of choice,” Peddle says

“If we’re looking at we don’t want people to be in parks, we don’t want people to be here, then is there a city property that can be supported as essentially a supportive space for people to go to? Because if it’s not there, then where? Because people need places to go. Survival is not a crime.”

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She notes that the number of people experiencing homelessness is only growing, with not enough housing to go around.

“We’re in a kind of the perfect storm of multiple crises is happening right now where we’ve got a housing crisis, an affordability crisis, mental health crisis, addiction crisis or opioid crisis, mental health crises, and there’s this perfect storm. We are seeing a lot of people falling into homelessness for a variety of different reasons,” she says.

“How many seniors we’re getting that come in, that are coming to our doors, that they’re losing their housing because groceries have gone up, and their rent has gone up, or their mortgage has gone up. It’s devastating to see that this is continuing to happen. We don’t have that safety net in place so people aren’t falling into homelessness.”

Nuttall says the City of Barrie will also be investing $100 million into affordable housing and building new affordable units within three and a half years.

“Thousands of units are needed, and so we need to make sure that we’re getting housing to market, that we’re removing barriers for affordable units, removing barriers to create social housing in our community that is really needed.”

Click to play video: 'Tents set up outside City Hall to push leaders to end homelessness'
Tents set up outside City Hall to push leaders to end homelessness

What’s being done to combat homelessness

Moving forward, Peddle is hopeful that the city will consult them, other local agencies, and people with lived experiences as they look at making changes to the bylaw and addressing the issue.

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“What’s the end goal of some of these bylaws that were put forward, and how do we move forward as a community to make sure that we actually don’t need to put any bylaw like this in place? Because people need our support, and every citizen matters in our city,” she says.

Despite the controversy surrounding the proposed bylaw changes, The City of Barrie is investing a lot of money to try and combat this issue.

Mayor Nuttall says they are investing $1.65 million to create a warming and cooling centre to help people escape the freezing winters and sweltering hot summers.

He notes they are also looking at providing funding to help create a new community meal program with the County of Simcoe to replace the program previously run by the Salvation Army, which was stopped due to lack of funding.

A public meeting of the community safety committee to review actions taken on the bylaw changes has been scheduled for Tuesday, Sept. 19.

Click to play video: 'Ontario man homeless after leg amputated'
Ontario man homeless after leg amputated

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