Abusing the Poor Doesn't Make the City Safe
Abusing the Poor Doesn't Make City Safe
'No-loitering' pettiness a symbol of our failure to maintain a civil society
by Iain Hunter; Saturday, April 14, 2007 - Times Colonist
What is the matter with the shopkeepers and business professionals in Victoria? When will they learn that their taxes and licences don't entitle them to boss everyone else around?
When will Mayor Alan Lowe tell them to get a life?
There's an unpleasant atmosphere downtown and it isn't caused by the people squatting on the sidewalk or sleeping in doorways. It's the people who own those doorways and think they own the sidewalk beyond, as well.
Now the Downtown Victoria Business Association has distributed ugly signs to members and they're up all over the place saying "private property" and warning people not to loiter, camp, cycle, skateboard or deposit "chattel goods" -- which is the politically correct way of describing the backpacks, blankets, garbage bags and dogs -- that homeless people and other squatters carry with them.
Some of these signs are posted outside the Greater Victoria Public Library, a place which claims not to have enough room for all its books and now, apparently, has decided there's not enough room for all members of the public who might want to read them, either.
One of these might be David Johnston. Yup, him again. This unusual character, who says he's addicted to justice, intends to camp in the library courtyard unless or until he's arrested for the umpteenth time for sleeping outside where others think he shouldn't.
If he's thrown in jail again because the law says the rain-soaked, cold ground is too good for him, he'll stop eating as he did for 36 days last year.
"I will see these signs taken down or I will die," he declared last week.
A lot of people around town who've had to put up with Johnston's nonsense assume he's a nut. At one of his court appearances the lawyer for the Crown suggested he be given a psychiatric assessment or at least be ordered to get counselling. The judge, to his credit, rejected the idea.
That judge was Robert Bauman of the B.C. Supreme Court. Before releasing Johnston on bail, Bauman described him as a man of principle and a spiritual man who can be trusted to keep his word. Those ready to have this pest thrown in the slammer again -- where he threatens to starve to death if he has to -- should remember that.
Bauman obviously realizes that clothes don't make the man. Neither do whiskers, doing without shelter, money or sex or eating garbage.
Johnston's not dirty, repulsive or violent. He's not a threat to anyone despite the Crown's contention that his actions amount to criminal contempt.
He believes that everyone has a right to sleep outdoors, especially if he or she has nowhere else to go, and cites God as his witness. And who's confident enough to say the courts won't agree with him if the charter challenge issued on behalf of Victoria's homeless last year goes ahead?
I can almost hear his worship's chain rattling. I know how someone bedding down somewhere in the open in his town must concern him. I know he must be concerned that others -- with the ground threatening to warm up -- might get the same idea. But what is the point of incarcerating for seven months, as a court was driven to by Johnston's inactivities, someone who'd really rather be left alone, outside, in God's great world, to live by his own devices? What is the point of treating this gentle soul as a criminal?
I envy Johnston his world. It sounds much nicer than that designed by the Downtown Victoria Business Association: No loitering, no cycling, no skateboarding -- no fun.
"We are challenged with the number of people who are on our streets," says Ken Kelly, the association's general manager. Yes, and many of those who are on "our" streets are even more challenged -- they haven't anywhere else to go.
"When the shelters run out of beds," says Kelly, "we end up finding some of these people in our doorways." Yes, and did anyone think of offering "these people" a little help? A bench, perhaps, or a tarp?
"All of us has a vested interest in a clean, safe and welcoming downtown," Kelly declares. Welcoming for whom? Mr. Kelly. Welcoming for whom?
Shopkeepers don't like stepping over bodies when they open their shops in the morning or close them at night. If they don't think "these people" are clean, safe or welcoming, presumably they find them dirty, dangerous and offensive and believe that their paying customers find them so, too.
So what must tourists, including those ready to brave this nuisance to spend a little money in Victoria shops, think of the "private property" signs that themselves are so unwelcoming?
What better place to loiter than the courtyard of our "public" library? It's a wonderful place to sit with a book and a sandwich. Are only people with briefcases and Starbucks coffee cups to be allowed that pleasure?
Damn it, downtown's for people. All of them.
© Times Colonist (Victoria) 2007