The bells of Knox United Church can be heard clearly from the rooftop garden of the Mustard Seed Street Ministry. Picnic tables are carefully positioned on the roof for guests to sit while eating, reading and taking in the full panorama of the city. Tomatoes, lettuce, peas and strawberries grow in pots to provide fresh produce for the kitchen below.
But the garden isn’t just a food source. Deb Runnalls, the shelter’s street level manager, says that the area — once open — will provide guests some much-needed space to relax in without being harassed.
“A lack of public space for our guests is more of a problem now than it has been in the past with the growth and development of the city,” says Runnalls. “There are less places to sit and relax downtown for sure. We’ve seen a huge increase in the number of people who come here to sit, relax, have a cup of coffee or watch the hockey game on TV.”
This isn’t a new issue. Tim Haney, an urban sociology professor at Mount Royal University, says that cities around the world battle the same problem, and that none of them are doing an exceptionally good job. But what does it say about our city that a homeless shelter has to build a park on its roof?
Kevin Bush, a Mustard Seed guest who waters and maintains the garden that will soon be open to guests, was homeless for six months. In the time that he was on the street, Bush says he saw many examples of how police and bylaw officers would ensure that the homeless were kept on the move and out of the public’s eye.
“We would try to find the most secluded place where the cops wouldn’t go, but they would always come,” Bush says. Although he says that the tickets he received for public intoxication were deserved, many other fines given to the homeless are “outrageous.”
The charges that Bush refers to fall under the public behaviour bylaw, which was introduced in 2006. The bylaw, heralded by some as being anti-homeless, outlaws actions such as urinating or defecating in public (a $300 fine), spitting in public (a $100 fine) and putting one’s feet on a bench (a $50 fine).
Ann Levey, a philosophy professor at the University of Calgary, wrote a paper on the concept of the exclusion of homeless people in public space, which she presented at universities across the country. The initial research for her paper was inspired by the introduction of the “draconian” 2006 Calgary bylaw, she says.
“Those norms have the effect of excluding the homeless from public space because those norms prohibit the kinds of behaviours that most people are able to do in private,” Levey says. Activities such as lying down to sleep, urinating and defecating are all fundamentally human, she says. “The only thing that is problematic about them is the fact that they’re done in public.”
Bill Bruce, the director of animal and bylaw services, explains that the bylaw “sets the standard. The bylaw says that we don’t accept that people should urinate or defecate in our parks and in our public spaces,” and adds that it’s also about respectful behaviour and properly treating other Calgarians.
Bruce assures that the bylaw is very seldom used by his officers, but the City of Calgary does not keep an accessible database. The Calgary Police Service handed out 4,869 tickets under the public behaviour bylaw in 2010, and so far in 2011 have awarded 2,063 as of the end of July.
But for some, that bylaw furthers the idea that homelessness is a crime.
Kim Gagnon, who has been working with the homeless for 30 years in England and Canada, has seen many of her disadvantaged friends kicked out of Calgary parks under the public behaviour bylaw. Although she admits that the police have a tough job to do, she says that an entire population is being ostracized.
The Clean to the Core program — which is what Gagnon makes reference to — started in 2006, and it often uses the bylaw introduced the same year to enforce the program. Sixty-eight police officers and 29 bylaw officers patrol the downtown core on foot in accordance with the “broken window theory,” which basically means if the neighbourhood isn’t cleaned up, then other people will disrespect it as well. Graffiti, cigarette butts and other signs of disorder are removed as a part of Clean to the Core.
“The streets are being cleaned up right now,” Gagnon says. “There’ll be no homeless. They’re so proud. But where do you think they’ll go? They’re being shoved under a carpet somewhere. It’s still going to be a mess. And it’s still going to keep coming back.”
The absence of public washrooms is part of the problem. Joe Ceci, a former alderman and the current co-ordinator for the Action to End Poverty in Alberta, assures that public urination is a symptom of a deeper problem.
“A more appropriate response instead of fining people is to point them to an available public toilet,” Ceci says. “There needs to be an available public toilet, and we have three (full time, downtown).. That’s the problem.”
The city has a plan to eventually purchase more of the $210,000 Exeloo public toilets, but until then police and bylaw officers continue to uphold the public behaviour bylaw. The way in which that bylaw is enforced, however, is changing.
Police and bylaw officers work directly with the homeless shelters through community liaison officers and training programs. Const. Trevor Sadownick, the Calgary Police Service’s community liaison officer with the Mustard Seed, reminds the public that “police officers have hearts. We’re not just robots. If I write a homeless person a ticket for public intoxication, we know that this person isn’t going to pay it because he doesn’t have any money to pay it. They go to jail and cost the system more money. But on the other hand, there has to be some kind of community standard.”
Sadownick — who says that his gloves permanently smell like urine and Listerine — says he uses discretion when dealing with the homeless.
Ald. John Mar, who was an RCMP officer before becoming a politician, concludes that: “The city has two choices here. We can enforce the hell out of these people and make life miserable for them, which achieves absolutely nothing. We can throw them in the clink, which costs us money. We can put them in an ambulance, which all adds up to the public person.”
“Or, we can actually look at the root cause of the problem. Who are these people? They’re someone’s son. They’re someone’s daughter. They’re someone’s brother. If we look at this from a sense of kinship, what do we owe these people as citizens and human beings? And how do we approach it from there?”