Homeless camps are not the source of fires, homelessness is
And premier David Eby lays out his public safety plan for Prince George
Happy Monday. Hope you enjoyed some winter activity over the weekend because we have a freeze-thaw cycle ahead of us. Blech.
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Today’s newsletter focuses on the fire at the homeless encampment that happened on Saturday night, and some Prince George-specific announcements from brand-new B.C. premier, David Eby made Sunday, including a major restorative justice program that could be a model for the rest of the province.
The province is exploring the possibility of opening a veterinary medicine college in town in the hopes of alleviating the lack of animal doctors in the region;
Northern Health has issued a toxic drug alert;
Prince George writer Sarah de Leeuw was profiled on CBC’s national books show, The Next Chapter;
The fire at the Elizabeth Fry Society housing unit next to Studio 2880 has been ruled suspicious and has left at least one family homeless;
These Prince George playing cards are really cool;
This list of the top 5 places to toboggan in Prince George is good but does not actually include the best place to toboggan in Prince George (it got an honourable mention).
Homeless camps are not the source of fires, homelessness is
On Saturday night, a fire broke out at the homeless encampment along 1st Ave. in Prince George. According to PG Fire Rescue:
“Upon arrival, crews found three tent-like structures in flames. The blaze was extinguished with no other damage reported.
“One individual from the tent where the fire originated was taken to hospital as a precaution.
“The cause of the fire is deemed to be accidental.”
In the aftermath, the conversation on Facebook comments was… mixed. A lot, I hope the majority, was people expressing concern. But there were also a lot of highly visible comments suggesting that this is why homeless camps should be shut down, referring to them as a “ticking time bomb.”
Not coincidentally, this is similar to the argument the city used just over a year ago when it went to court to try and get permission to break up encampments and force people to live elsewhere. This is from an affidavit filed by the city’s chief fire prevention officer in support of that case:
“Fires and propane heat are used in these areas under tarps with very little consideration for fire safety. This is a clear risk to the occupants.
“These large tarped areas have fortified their boundaries with chain-link fencing which occupants removed from a nearby fence. This makes accessing and entering the tents difficult for first responders. This is a public safety risk in cases of emergency, particularly drug overdoses.
“The occupants are using pallets and other wooden material to build walls and barricades around their tents. These pallets are unfinished wood products and are combustible with little exposure to fire or heat. Many of the tents are in close proximity to these pallets.
“There has been evidence of burning of outdoor fires.”
The judge in the case did not disagree with this assessment, but observed the following:
“I am prepared to take judicial notice that Prince George can be very cold in the fall and winter, and that people with nowhere warm to stay must find ways of keeping warm to stay alive. I accept that if the occupants of the encampments are enjoined from using those encampments, they will present the same risk of fires, wherever they move to, unless they move to alternate shelters.”
Translation: As long as people are living outside in Prince George, they will need to find ways to stay warm. The risk of fire remains until better, safer ways of keeping people warm over the winter months are in place.
Incidentally, this happened the day after the fire:
David Eby’s plan for Prince George
A restorative justice program to be piloted in the city could be a model for the whole province
Ok, not for Prince George specifically (although, actually, yes, Prince George specifically in some cases) but on Sunday, David Eby — who just became premier on Friday — made a pretty significant set of policy announcements. The “Stronger B.C./Safer Communities” is the former Attorney General’s response to public safety concerns that have come up in pretty much every city in the province and dominated the municipal election cycle.
You can read the whole thing on this (new?) website or, if you prefer, a 17-page pdf.
A huge piece of this is a plan to create dedicated teams to monitor repeat violent offenders, and have past convictions inform future sentencing and bail eligibility. There’s also policies around improving access to addictions treatment and mental health support. But what I want to highlight are some of the policies aimed specifically at Prince George or cities like Prince George:
Virtual bail hearings to reduce the number of people stuck in Prince George or other hub cities
“To support timely, effective bail hearings that will protect the public and meet constitutional obligations, the Province is investing more than $3 million per year to expand virtual bail hearings throughout B.C. By reducing the need for accused people to travel to larger centres, virtual bail hearings minimize the risk that alleged offenders will be transported hundreds of kilometres from home and get stuck, homeless, in a hub city like Terrace, Trail, Prince George, Williams Lake, Nanaimo, Kelowna, Kamloops or Campbell River. Instead, they can stay in their home communities and access existing supports, family and friends.”
Basically: People are transported to cities with courthouses for hearings but are not given the means to get home, leaving them stuck. Virtual bail will help avoid that. (This is also an issue for people getting out of prison, btw).
$3 million in funding for “car” programs that pair mental health workers with police for certain calls
Like many other cities, Prince George has wished to expand on its Car 60 program. Right now, it operates from noon to 9 pm and there has been eagerness to have more hours, but funding the mental health professionals to do so has been a hangup.
A restorative justice program in Prince George to be piloted before expanding across the province:
So over the summer, the province commissioned a report on what to do about repeat offenders after a bunch of mayors came to Victoria to complain about the problem in their communities. The report was released in September and one of its recommendations was:
Funding of $100,000 and resource allocation should be granted for the design of a pilot program by BCFNJC in Prince George’s Indigenous Justice Centre to address the issue of criminal recidivism amongst First Nations people.
That recommendation actually came from the B.C. First Nation Justice Council and is meant to be an expansion of the Indigenous Justice Centre which opened here in January and is now considered the flagship for a new model that will be expanded across the province.
You can read the full details of the proposal on page 166 of this report, but I think this is worth highlighting:
In the context of Prince George, the ‘prolific offender’ problem remains unclear, considering the lack of data mentioned earlier. In some cases, those labelled as ‘prolific offenders’ are only classified based on the number of files they each have with a police response, despite the lack of charges on any of these files. This categorization seems to act as a justification for over-policing these particular individuals.
“Excessive monitoring, especially the kind of electronic monitoring proposed in the Investigation’s TOR, stops First Nations individuals from visiting or moving back to their remote home communities, which creates barriers preventing them from accessing pro-social ties and being involved in their home community. On the healing path, community involvement is more restorative than maintaining displacement to monitor an individual. This, alongside over-policing, inevitably leads to future arrests due to one’s failure to comply with challenging conditions.”
This new restorative justice program is meant to be a pilot for yet another province-wide initiative, and Eby has committed to funding it.
Anyways that is what stands out to me from this fleet of announcements. There will be plenty of reporting from folks in days and weeks ahead as more info becomes available and more time to see how this plays out in practice.
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Here’s a fun tweet, as a reward: