Nelson bylaw officers and police will soon be empowered to impose a $50 fine for any pedestrian being a nuisance on a city street. (For early payment it’s $20 and for late payment $100.)
The definition of nuisance includes screaming, shouting, swearing, using insulting or obscene language, urinating, defecating, and participating in a violent confrontation or struggle.
And there will be another fine, with the same penalties, for obstructing a street or sidewalk.
These measures passed third reading at Nelson council meeting on Monday. They still have to come back for a final adoption vote at a later meeting. The changes are contained in a proposed amendment to Nelson’s Traffic (Pedestrian Regulations) Bylaw.
For several years council has been trying to decide what to do, if anything, about panhandling and the street population in the face of complaints from businesses and citizens.
In May, 2016, a proposed bylaw designed to control panhandling passed third reading with four to three vote, but later, in July, the bylaw did not pass final adoption because Councillor Michael Dailly changed his mind and voted against it.
Council decided then that it wanted to bring the matter back in September, 2017, after the newly created street outreach team had had a chance to do its work.
In the meantime, in June, 2017, council extended its non smoking bylaw (including the smoking of cannabis) to a long list of public places.
The issue in 2018, according to Mayor Deb Kozak at Monday’s meeting, is “how to gracefully handle some of the social issues on our streets and how to handle them with some dignity and respect. We consulted broadly with community, with social and business sectors and we have a full-time beat officer once again. We have a street outreach team and we work hard to make sure there is civility in our streets.
“But we want to help our police and bylaw department have a few more tools in their belt,” she said.
Kozak said the city cannot pass a bylaw outlawing panhandling because according to the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, asking for money is not illegal.
“This is not about people asking for money, this is about how people behave in our downtown core,” she said.
Kozak said the enforcement of the bylaw will start with information and education before fines are levied.
Dailly said he agrees with the bylaw and with the education aspect.
“I am glad we are talking about education so people know that it is not OK to lie down in a doorway and go to sleep, but at the same time this is our most vulnerable people and we need to find better ways to ensure they do not end up on the street. And I just want to make sure we have enough people to go out there and talk to these people and let them know what’s OK and what’s not.”
Dailly said he wants people to know about the provincial Safe Streets Act.
“We have the Safe Streets Act and they ought to call the police if they feel obstructed or threatened in any way … and it going to be those repeat people that are treated more effectively by the court system and maybe banned from downtown if they are going this repeatedly.”
The Safe Streets Act prohibits panhandlers from obstructing the passage of pedestrians, touching a person, continuing to approach a person who has given a negative response, approaching in groups of two or more, obstructing traffic, panhandling people in parked vehicles or vehicles at a stop light, and panhandling within five metres of an ATM, pay phone, or public washroom.
The Act can only be enforced by a police officer, whereas the city bylaw could be enforced by a bylaw officer. Penalties under the Act start at $86 as opposed to $50 under the bylaw. And enforcement under the Act involves a criminal prosecution and a court process, while the bylaw involves a ticket and a fine, similar to a parking ticket.
The city consulted representatives of the police, the social sector and the business sector on the new pedestrian regulations, according to materials presented by city staff to council.
“The social sector expressed concern that some of the street population may be challenged by the language although alternate language was not provided. The police indicated that more specific language with respect to defining ‘obstruction’ would be preferred although they are comfortable with applying discretion. The business sector strongly indicated that they would prefer stronger language, including specifics about where panhandling is permitted.”