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TORONTO–With the Olympics less a year away, many pundits and officials have been musing about how the city is going to make good on its plan to “clean-up” Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside (DTES) by 2010. One answer is both crude and sad: jaywalking tickets.
Housing advocates of the DTES say ticketing for minor bylaw infractions are up. According to Nicole Latham, a staff member at the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users (VANDU), suspicions arose at the VANDU July 2008 AGM. “Someone asked how many people had been given a jaywalking ticket and half the room put up their hands.”
According to Laura Track, a lawyer at Pivot Legal Society, jaywalking tickets are only the tip of the iceberg. “Around 30 people were ticketed in two days for camping in parks in mid-July 2008,” she says.
Track and Ann Livingston, Executive Director of VANDU, claim that the Vancouver Police Department (VPD) is on a ticketing binge. Ticketing for jaywalking, selling merchandise and bicycle infractions in the DTES are all on the rise.
Under provincial laws such as the Safe Streets Act and the Trespass Act, 297 tickets were issued to Vancouver residents in 2007. In 2008, that number jumped to 600, well above targets. Both Acts have been labeled by advocates as laws that legislate against poverty and target the homeless.
Vancouver’s Megaphone Magazine tracked, in December 2008, a major "ticketing blitz" in the DTES. A VPD report the following month stated 439 tickets were issued in 2008 for vending, panhandling and loitering in the DTES. “In 2007, bylaw tickets issued in the area totaled only 247,” read the report.
According to information obtained by The Dominion through a Freedom of Information request, tickets issued for illegal vending in all of Vancouver amounted to 263 in 2007. In 2008, 537 tickets were issued city-wide.
In other words, of all the vending tickets issued in Vancouver over the last 2 years, more than 80 per cent have been given out in the DTES.
Statistics from the Freedom of Information request show that other tickets, which seem to discriminate against the homeless, are similarly on the rise. Jaywalking tickets have increased drastically: from 757 in 2007 to 1,086 in 2008. Riding a bike without a helmet resulted in 32 tickets in 2006 and in 2008 that figure rose to 92.
Doug King, Pivot’s Police Campaigner, holds that the targeting of residents in the DTES is intentional; the VPD has admitted as such.
According to King, "The DTES is where the street vending occurs and most of the increase [in tickets] is attributable to about four blocks. The police are being very open about this; they believe in the broken-windows approach to policing." When contacted, VPD spokesperson Jana McGuinness confirmed that new initiatives that target the DTES are being used primarily to address the “open-air drug market."
The idea to increase the amount of bylaw ticketing originally surfaced in 2006 during former Mayor Sam Sullivan’s much maligned "Project Civil City." Civil City was originally promoted as a means of reducing homelessness, street disorder and drug use. According to statistics published in The Tyee in 2008, all three have risen dramatically since the launch of Civil City. Despite this rise, the central strategy of Civil City has been fully embraced by the VPD.
The 2009 VPD Annual Business Plan places significant emphasis on bylaw tickets for crimes prevalent in the DTES. Graffiti, panhandling, street vending, camping and “the scavenger economy” are key issues the VPD says it wants to target. The report also stated that "chronic bylaw offenders” are being targeted with more tickets and more serving of summons.
“There’s speculation in the DTES neighbourhood that this is being done to try to clean up the neighbourhood before the Olympics get into town,” says King. "The VPD [however] is very adamant that [this] is not what they are doing."
While groups like VANDU and Pivot have been key in pointing out the increase in ticketing in the Downtown Eastside, other groups have been fighting it. The Downtown Eastside Women’s Centre (DEWC) held a press conference in February calling attention to the aggressive ticketing by the VPD. According to Priscillia Mays, a member of the Power of Women Group at the DEWC, the ticketing “is happening to ensure that residents live in a state of fear and intimidation so that the DTES is ‘cleansed’ of poor and homeless people in time for the tourists.”
She also says, “It is not a coincidence that all this is happening in the lead-up to the Olympic Games. It is likely that poor people who are unable to pay these hefty tickets will be jailed leading up to 2010 because the VPD Draft Business Plan indicates increased involvement in ensuring that court summons are served to those ‘chronic offenders’ of such ridiculous bylaws.”
Asked why the VPD was targeting the DTES at this time and if the sudden rise in bylaw tickets had anything to do with the Olympics, spokesperson McGuinness refused to comment.
Multiple Canadian government officials could be learning from Atlanta, which used the same strategy for sweeping the streets of homeless people during their Olympic Games in 1996. The Weicker Report, issued in 2002 to a special Vancouver-based committee with members from the federal, provincial and municipal governments, looked at the impact of the Games on “Vancouver’s Inner City Neighbourhood.” It noted the use of jaywalking tickets in Atlanta to lock up the homeless populations.
By 2006, a flurry of local laws were being implemented under Project Civil City to make it easier to ticket people, summon them to court and subject them to a term of incarceration.
One of the changes was the introduction of a pilot project called the Municipal Ticket Information system (MTI). Under old methods of ticketing, a bylaw offender would be issued a notice asking them to pay a fine. If they did not pay, then a summons to court would be issued and served personally to the offender, who could then be acquitted, fined or restricted from areas of the city.
Under the new MTI process, a person given a ticket has 14 days to file a dispute. If they do not, a conviction and imposition of a fine is automatic. City documents point out that the MTI project has added to the number of convictions and fines.
The fear of homeless advocates is that warrants for unpaid tickets and similar offenses will suddenly appear en masse.
“That’s what people are the most afraid of in the neighbourhood; that they will keep issuing tickets at everyone. Then, at any time, people can get warranted," says King. "They are obviously targeting specific people."
In a February 2008 submission to city council, Geoff Plant, Civil City Project Commissioner, put forth a series of "immediate requests" for changes to provincial legislation. He requested that the B.C. government make it easier to get bylaw offenders in court and to incarcerate people who are unable to pay fines.
Plant has been pushing for these legislative changes since last year but the cancellation of the B.C. Fall legislature session in 2008 meant that these changes have not yet been put into effect.
Gwalgen Geordie Dent is a contributing member of Medicoop.ca-Toronto. He is a former health worker in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside.
The Dominion is a monthly paper published by an incipient network of independent journalists in Canada. It aims to provide accurate, critical coverage that is accountable to its readers and the subjects it tackles. Taking its name from Canada's official status as both a colony and a colonial force, the Dominion examines politics, culture and daily life with a view to understanding the exercise of power.