Coquitlam Bylaw’s War on the Poor: Sid and Sharon’s Story
In mid-January, Coquitlam bylaw officers showed up at Sid and Sharon’s home. Without providing any paperwork the officers gave them a verbal directive: pack up your stuff and move out within a week. They told them that junk removers would be arriving in a couple days, followed by a bulldozer to demolish their home.
Sid and Sharon have been squatting in a cabin they built in a public park for over a year. When I and another member of Red Braid went to visit them, a day before the stated demolition, they were in the midst of packing up their stuff. Sid explained their plan: “Leave and then build another cabin further down the river.”
Sid’s plan to casually start over from scratch tells us that for poor and homeless people, the monstrous violence of displacement is a part of their normal, everyday experience. It’s no mystery why that is: bylaw officers wield incredible power over homeless people’s lives by displacing them from shelter, demolishing their homes, and stealing their possessions. They are a crucial part of the policing apparatus, along with cops and private security guards, that represents the interests of property owners by thrusting homeless people out of the public eye and into oblivion.
When people get pushed and trampled on by powerful actors over and over again, displacement goes from being a normal occurrence to also feeling inevitable and unremarkable. Sid and Sharon’s story shows that the pettiest of cops exercise great, hidden, and routine powers over the lives of approximately ten thousand unhoused people throughout British Columbia. It also shows that even lowkey resistance disrupts the normalization of Bylaw power. Sid and Sharon’s small but successful act of resistance could, on a larger, more organized scale, develop into the movement we need to end the war on the poor.
Resisting City Hall’s One-way Power
Because the routine and arbitrary eviction came in the midst of a housing crisis-exacerbated pandemic, Sid and Sharon really felt its injustice. Sharon said, “They’re not giving us any other options. The shelter is full. The hotel [run by Fraser Health] is full. Where do they expect us to go? It’s getting cold at night. This is completely inhumane… We keep the area clean. We’re still looking for housing but as it stands, until we find any, this is the best place for us. We’ve established a roof over our heads and we’re not bugging anyone. I don’t understand why it’s a problem.”
We suggested to Sid and Sharon that rather than willingly leave just because a bylaw officer told them to, that they take a stand and demand to see an injunction, on the basis that displacing them from their home during a pandemic would be a violation of their Charter rights. Hearing two other people suggest that maybe displacement was not inevitable and that bylaw officers do not have total power gave Sid and Sharon the confidence to resist their displacement.
Bylaw showed up that day to see if they were ready to move out. Sharon later explained, “I told bylaw that at this time we don’t have anywhere else to go and until we find somewhere else to live, this is our home and this is where we’re staying.”
When Sid and Sharon asserted their entitlement to live in relative safety and security they interrupted the normalcy of bylaw power. In response, the officers said that as long as Sid and Sharon opened a storage unit to store their possessions, they could stay for the time being. A couple weeks later, the officers returned saying that the City would pay for Sid and Sharon to stay in a motel. By challenging the City of Coquitlam’s one-way power, Sid and Sharon were able to successfully wrench a concession that, while always within the City’s power to give, could only be won by waging a struggle.
Bylaw officers: Police without Guns
In response to public coverage of Sid and Sharon’s story, the City of Coquitlam’s communication manager made the laughable claim that “the city’s bylaw officers take a compassionate approach and do a tremendous amount of work to reach out to connect people who are homeless in our community with the appropriate support and resources.”
In reality, the “appropriate support and resources” that bylaw officers “connect” unhoused people to is a different doorway to huddle out of the rain until bylaw finds them again. The only homeless shelter in Coquitlam is at 3030 Gordon, which is always full.
When bylaw first visited Sid and Sharon, they said they could stay for a temporary period of time so long as they took care of the area, attracted no police attention, and worked with a local NGO to find affordable housing. A bylaw officer told Sharon, “As long as you’re making progress rather than staying permanently, you can stay.” They also told Sid and Sharon not to elicit any police attention. Sid and Sharon obliged and got an outreach worker with the NGO who periodically texts them Craigslist rental housing ads.
Then, in December, police officers showed up at Sid and Sharon’s home, claimed they had a warrant that they did not show, cuffed Sid and Sharon, told them they were under arrest but without naming a charge, and then illegally searched their home. They confiscated air rifles, uncuffed them, and left.
When the bylaw officers told Sid and Sharon that the City would provide them a hotel, they served them with a “Notice of Violation of Parks & Facilities Bylaw” that said they had violated a bylaw by possessing a “weapon” in a park. The illegal search of their home by police gave bylaw officers an excuse to evict them.
The bylaw officers’ ultimatum was impossible from the beginning. Sid and Sharon can’t “make progress” finding affordable housing that does not exist, nor is any homeless person ever visited by police as a result of their own agency. The police visit, along with the bylaw officer’s ultimatum, were both setups that gave bylaw officers the moral and political high ground to exercise an eviction that Sid and Sharon already implicitly consented to by agreeing to try to be “good” homeless people – the kind that lifts themselves out of homelessness by playing by the rules.
Not long after Sid and Sharon fought their eviction, Coquitlam RCMP tweeted that “following the recent cold and wet weather, some of our officers visited a local camp to ensure no one was in need of emergency medical care.” The City’s attempt to paint both bylaw officers and cops as performing the functions of pseudo outreach workers is a smokescreen: Sid and Sharon’s experience reveals that bylaw officers are auxiliary cops, made necessary on a jurisdictional level by Canada’s replacement of anti-poor Criminal Code laws with anti-poor Municipal bylaws and Provincial codes. Where the legal and political domain of formal police officers ends, the domain of bylaw officers, that special and growing band of Municipal cops, takes over.
Street communities are uniquely positioned to recognize the necessity of abolishing bylaws and bylaw officers because they are on the receiving end of their arbitrary rules. Their analysis deserves attention. Sid said, “I don’t see the point in them. They’re not trustworthy, they make up their own work as they go. Nothing they do needs to be done. Since the start of time people have built shelters to live in. When people have been out in the cold, they haven’t thought, ‘I better find a landlord!'”
Sid’s comment strikes straight to the class interests of bylaw officers, which is to protect the profits of landlords and investors. In radically separating the need for shelter from the existence of landlords, he exposes the nonsense of the capitalist myth that landlords are necessary to “provide” housing, when the truth is that they stand in the way of communities seizing and creating the homes they need, with bylaw officers acting as the footsoldiers of their economic interests.
Sid and Sharon’s persecution by Coquitlam bylaw is a microcosm of the current balance of forces between cops and bylaw officers and the communities they police and attack, and their resistance is an example of the mindset we need in order to shift that balance of forces. By saying no to Coquitlam bylaw, Sid and Sharon showed that in order to fight the inevitability of bylaw displacement, homeless people can locate and wedge open the gap between the feeling of the inevitability of City power and the truth that resistance breaks that top-down power. Even small acts of resistance open up greater possibilities to mount a struggle that can successfully defend subaltern communities from police of all varieties – including the ones who don’t carry guns.