Between A Rock And A Hard Place – Intro

By Mike Archer. Abbotsford has received a great deal of media attention for its treatment of the homeless, particularly those who suffer from mental illness, alcohol dependence or drug addiction.

The City has developed and adopted a particular set of bylaws, policies, procedures and methods of dealing with its homeless population which has led to some pretty outlandish outcomes. These have been instrumental in making Abbotsford stand out among its neighbours in the Lower Mainland, in BC, and across Canada.

When isolated, neither the specific decisions made nor the actions taken are new or unique. When taken together they constitute a particular manner of dealing with social problems, and of treating certain narrowly defined classes of people in ways which have led to many of the difficulties the community now faces.

Jurisdictional Overreach

The City of Abbotsford has set the tone for first responders and service providers in Abbotsford by passing bylaws which discriminate against drug users, drug addicts, people who suffer from mental illness, alcohol dependence or other behavioural problems and by encouraging or demanding that they be treated differently.

Those bylaws, and the resulting approach taken by organizations such as the APD, are out of step with current research, strategies and best practices for working with marginalized people.

The BC Supreme Court is currently deciding whether the City has been within its jurisdiction to write and enforce the Anti-Harm Reduction Bylaw and its Anti-Homeless Bylaws. Its decision could set a national and worldwide precedent, primarily because of the widespread misuse of local bylaws in favour of multinational corporations [Bolivia’s Water Wars], but also because of the use of local bylaws in order to circumvent national or international agreements on human rights.

Rules, regulations, bylaws and laws against the poor and the homeless have been the on the increase in the Western World. If recent headlines are any indication, Abbotsford risks finding itself on the wrong side of history on the issue as public opinion shifts away from fighting poverty with as though it were a crime.

The Anti-Harm Reduction Bylaw; the Anti-Homeless Bylaws; the City of Abbotsford Crime Reduction & Community Safety Strategy and, of course, the infamous Chicken Manure Incident have been among the most high profile and controversial elements of the Abbotsford Homeless Crisis.

The APD has been out of the homeless headlines since its siege action in enforcing an injunction forcing homeless protesters out of Jubilee Park on Christmas Eve in 2013.

There remains an uneasy truce, between the homeless and the APD, likely due to the cases in the BC Supreme Court and the BC Human Rights Tribunal in which the APD is heavily involved. But there have, as yet, been no signs of contrition; admissions of guilt (except in the specific cases where the APD has settled with some of its victims); no willingness to compensate or come to terms with the men and women who have endured what has been, for all intents and purposes, a sustained program of harassment, abuse and denial of services.

Nor has there been any visible change in direction such as re-training for senior officers as well as those who work the streets in the understanding and proper treatment of marginalized people.

Crime Reduction Strategy CoverUsing Police To Deal With Social Issues

Abbotsford, more than other communities, seems to have deployed both its bylaw department and its police force in fighting homelessness instead of taking the more humane and effective approaches available.

By effectively criminalizing homelessness, or more precisely – the features which accompany homelessness –  for those who do not measure up to certain standards of behaviour, sobriety, medical condition, or financial success –the City has set its police force on a collision course with its most marginalized and defenceless citizens.

By issuing a local policy on crime which equates simple possession or use of drugs with trafficking and gang activity, the City of Abbotsford, under former Mayor George Peary, provided an interpretation of the Canadian Criminal Code which is unique in the country. It placed the APD in a position of being asked to enforce some Criminal Code provisions with more emphasis than others and interpret the Criminal Code in ways which simply don’t exist in law.

The City’s policy on harm reduction also set a tone for the APD, the Bylaw Department, and service providers such as ACS to follow. The APD and Bylaw Department have been encouraged to treat drug addicts as criminals, and service providers to treat addicts as though they are beyond their help. Abbotsford has had among the highest rates of HIV and Hep C in Canada – a result, according to Fraser Health, of its singular lack of willingness to adopt 21st (or even 20th) Century scientific and medical best practices and allow drug addicts to receive the medical medical help they need.

Abbotsford’s insistence on limiting the options for drug addicts to abstinence has left hundreds of addicts without any help or support. Many of them are homeless as a result.

Similarly, Bob Rich’s policy of dispersing and displacing homeless people has come to define the relationship between his force and Abbotsford’s poor and marginalized in terms of confrontation with armed representatives of the community.

APD Chief Constable Bob Rich. Screengrab from Fraser Health video.

APD Chief Constable Bob Rich. Screengrab from Fraser Health video.

Selective Enforcement

Police departments and police officers across the country choose not to enforce laws all day, every day. For example; by choosing to give a warning rather than a ticket police regularly make value judgments on how to enforce the law. Similarly, most police departments in Canada no longer enforce marijuana possession laws.

The APD has chosen to enforce certain parts of the criminal code, such as drug possession and use, with higher priority than others. The use of military tactics, weaponry and apparel seems to be more associated with the APD’s approach to marijuana activist Tim Felger and the defenseless men and women of Jubilee Park than even the gangs against whom we thought they were supposed to be deployed.

Until the issue of Abbotsford’s treatment of the homeless garnered international headlines, the APD slashed tents, pepper-sprayed people and their belongings, and chased people out of their makeshift homes and camps all over Abbotsford.

The APD has abandoned all of those activities since the headlines and the court cases which have brought Abbotsford’s name into such disrepute.

Put simply; the Abbotsford Shuffle appears to be over. The APD certainly seems to be acting differently now that we’ve told the world what they were doing.

If they were just obeying the law, how could they change their approach? Why would they if they weren’t doing something wrong?

Degree Of Response

The methods chosen to enforce certain laws and bylaws in Abbotsford, as well as both the kind and amount of force used have helped bring a spotlight on the both the City and its police force. They have brought media and public attention to other aspects of how the APD conducts itself when dealing with marginalized people.

The rude and demeaning emails shared by police chief Bob Rich and his senior staff after the Chicken Manure Incident revealed a contempt towards the homeless and the horrendous abuse of their, human rights, personal liberties and basic human dignity which was at odds with generally accepted views on police relations with community members. Where, one might well ask, does the APD draw the line between citizens deserving of such contempt and those not? Who will be next?

Drug War Survicors Temporary Dignity Village in Jubilee Park, November 2013. Bas Stevens Photo.

Drug War Survicors Temporary Dignity Village in Jubilee Park, November 2013. Bas Stevens Photo.

The shooting of Roy Roberts* with rubber bullets, which was captured on video, revealed a willingness for what amounted to an almost military level of force in response to a non-violent misunderstanding, with an individual who was known to police to suffer from mental illness, and which ended without charges being brought against victim of the shooting. The video reveals a complete inability on the part of the APD to reassess the situation on the ground vs. the information they thought they received over the phone. It also reveals an approach to mental illness which is, to say the least, problematic.

The fortress made from donated, prefab building materials destined for use a cabins for the homeless which now sits, unused, in the City's parks yard.

The fortress made from donated, prefab building materials destined for use a cabins for the homeless which now sits, unused, in the City’s parks yard.

Rather than being allowed to go on his way once he was shot and found not to be presenting a danger to anyone, Roberts was sent away for a 30-psychiatric evaluation and then summarily dumped back on the streets of Abbotsford only to find that, in his absence, the City of Abbotsford had taken all of his belongings, to the dump. The spot he had found to live, across the street from Abbotsford Community Services (ACS), which provided him with close contact with the services he required, had been cleaned up and fenced off so that he had to move.

When the City of Abbotsford obtained an injunction from the BC Supreme Court to remove homeless protesters from their tent city in Jubilee Park on Christmas Eve in 2013, the City and the APD surrounded the camp with concrete barricades; positioned klieg lights atop telephone poles covering the site with high intesity light; brought in four ambulances and surrounded the camp with a heavy, armed, police presence.

Six months after the world learned about the Abbotsford Chicken Manure Incident, the APD’s response to the Jubilee Park protest, once again brought national attention to the manner in which the City of Abbotsford and its police force deal with those who suffer from mental illness and drug addiction.

Making homelessness illegal. Win Wachsmann Photo

Making homelessness illegal. Win Wachsmann Photo

Abbotsford’s Unique Approach

Many other municipalities face similar issues but most have dealt with them quite differently. Most cities in Canada don’t use their police force to enforce any local forays into social policy which are at odds with federal or provincial jurisdiction. In most cities, first responders (police, ambulance, fire) deal with homeless citizens, drug addicts or those who suffer from mental illness only if and when they are involved in criminal activity or if and when they are injured or in need of medical attention.

The APD and the Bylaw Department have, in many cases, become the leading organizations for the City of Abbotsford’s foray into the administration of social policy and healthcare. It hasn’t worked very well.

Regardless of the results of the law suits and human rights complaints against the City and the APD, there is little disagreement that we must find a new way of dealing with these issues. Those who set us on this course will, in one way or another, need to answer for their decisions; apologies will have to be made and restitution will likely form an important part of any healing process.

If we can agree on one thing as we move forward as a community, surely we can agree that criminalizing social issues, such as homelessness, mental illness and drug addiction, is not the role of local government and it certainly has not worked.

The role, if there is one, of the police in enforcing social policy is debatable. More importantly for Abbotsford, the manner in which our police deal with marginalized people has to change.

This Series

In this series we will look at the role of first responders, more particularly the APD, in the larger social issues surrounding mental illness, drug addiction and homelessness which have taken center stage in Abbotsford. We will ask whether or not it is even appropriate to ask the police to play such a central role in the dealing with the many issues surrounding homelessness.

We will look at training opportunities for first responders, especially the police, and ask we will ask how the APD has managed to play such a significant role in dealing with homelessness, for such a long time, with so little training in dealing with the people it has targeted for enforcement.

We have spoken to two well-known individuals in the fields of mental illness, drug addiction and homelessness; and, we have asked for the input of Fraser Health with specific reference to its ‘Moments to Milestones’ video** on first responders and those who suffer from addiction and/or mental illness which was released late in 2014.

We hope to encourage a community discussion about the ways we have tried, and in some cases failed, to solve some of the toughest issues facing society today, and, in the process, contribute to the healing process and the search for solutions which work for the entire community – not just those who measure up to the sometimes unrealistic moral, medical and behavioural standards of a powerful local minority.

While there are strong opinions about how best to approach these issues, some have proven to work, others have not. We hope to help Abbotsford move forward based on best practices, science, medecine and fact in helping our most marginalized citizens.

*The Shooting Of Roy Roberts

** Fraser Health’s video Moments to Milestones

Short Summary of Abbotsford’s Homeless Crisis:

Nick Zurowski, The Face of Homelessness in Abbotsford. Bas Stevens  Photo

Nick Zurowski, The Face of Homelessness in Abbotsford. Bas Stevens Photo

First came  John Smith’s announcement to the national media that he had instructed the APD to handle homelessness in downtown Abbotsford; then the Abbotsford Shuffle – otherwise known as Chief Bob Rich’s “disperse and displace” strategy for solving homelessness; then Mayor Banman’s Chicken Manure Incident (first revealed on Abbotsford Today); then there was the Standoff in Jubilee; followed by the ‘MCC Dignity Village‘ protest camp on Gladys Avenue and the gathering of more and more of Abbotsford’s homeless to the security of living with others and out in the open in the growing size and number of camps across from the Salvation Army and along Gladys Avenue.

Embarrassing Revelations

Abbotsford Homeless Camp. Bas Stevens photo.

Abbotsford Homeless Camp. Bas Stevens photo.

Along the way a few embarrassing revelations were uncovered and published by Abbotsford Today including
the fact that the Salvation Army knew about and was in agreement with the use of chicken feces to encourage the homeless to move from their camp across the street from the Sally Ann; and the rude and demeaning emails shared by police chief Bob Rich and his senior staff after the Chicken Manure Incident went worldwide.

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