By Chris Weibe
In September 2020, the Mayor of Edmonton Don Iveson called on the Governments of Alberta and Canada to help the City buy hotels or apartment buildings for housing unhoused Edmontonians. This was a necessary action. It is the latest effort in a decades-long struggle to use scarce public resources to help unhoused people. It forced members of the taxpaying working poor, middle, and upper classes to consider: how much of our public resources should we spend to ensure our unhoused neighbours’ safety? And should we spend more during a pandemic?
Readers should continue asking themselves these important questions. But readers – especially legal professionals and elected officials like Mayor Iveson – should also ask themselves another important question: how much do our publicly-funded institutions unjustifiably harm our unhoused neighbours?
This blog post offers some answers to that question by looking at how laws in Alberta, and in particular Edmonton transit bylaws, have harmed unhoused people.
In December 2019, Student Legal Services of Edmonton released a report about how Edmonton’s Transit Peace Officers give a lot of bylaw tickets to unhoused Edmontonians. The report, titled “No Fixed Address”, contained some new data about how Transit Peace Officers disproportionately target unhoused Edmontonians. Notably, in 2018 Transit Peace Officers gave unhoused Edmontonians 2,102 tickets for trespassing by breaching bans and 561 tickets for loitering. The City of Edmonton initially disputed the numbers but later confirmed their near accuracy (If you would like more explanation of that, read this twitter thread from journalist Kyle Muzyka). In any case, the numbers of tickets that Transit Peace Officers gave to unhoused Edmontonians represented overwhelming majorities of the total number of tickets that Transit Peace Officers gave to Edmontonians in 2018 (Transit Peace Officers also target racialized peoples).
Transit tickets have serious consequences for recipients. Those unable to pay the fines may be required to perform community service, face registry penalties for not paying their tickets, or receive warrants for not appearing in court. These harms disproportionately affect unhoused and racialized Edmontonians.
Transit bylaws are not the only legislative instruments that harm low-income and unhoused people in Alberta. Similarly, Albertan welfare policies impose unnecessarily burdensome red tape on low-income people. A person might have their Income Support benefits terminated for saving as little as $2000, as one might to buy a used car to get to work. Why? Because Income Support prohibits benefits recipients from saving more than three months' worth of benefits. One month of benefits for a single adult with no kids who is expected to work could be as little as $518, and is often between $700-1000 per month. Income Support recipients’ benefits may also be cut off if they are subject to a conditional sentence order that does not allow them to work. Unsurprisingly, unhoused people do better when such red tape is not imposed.
During the pandemic, public institutions have offered less protection to unhoused people than they offer to the rest of us. Three days after Alberta’s Chief Medical Officer of Health (CMOH) mandated that all persons gathering indoors must maintain at least 2 metres distance from each other, the CMOH took away that protection from people who use homeless shelters and transitional housing. The CMOH exempted shelter users because of limited shelter space. The province promised $48 million to increase shelter space, but the funding was not quickly distributed and COVID-19 cases among unhoused Albertans increased in both Calgary and Edmonton. In response to such disregard, some unhoused people and front-line workers took their community’s wellbeing into their own hands.
While the examples above may not seem related, they are all examples of how often legal instruments unjustifiably deny low-income people safety, wellbeing, and the ability to exist among the other classes. They are examples of how our law reflects our conscious and unconscious fear, distrust, and disregard of our unhoused and low-income neighbours. They are symptoms of systemic classism in Alberta.
Christopher Wiebe is a student-at-law at Calgary Legal Guidance and was the 2019 coordinator of the Legal Education & Reform Project at Student Legal Services of Edmonton.
 Income Support, Training and Health Benefits Regulation, Alta Reg 122/2011, s 21(1).
 Ibid, s 15(b).