Let’s all go to the library

James Bay is getting a public library branch in 2018, fulfilling a long-standing promise from the City of Victoria. Public libraries are well-used by homeless Victorians, and I expect the James Bay branch will be no exception. What’s interesting is that the library will be right next to a new, privately owned “public plaza,” with a set of rules about how people can use it. Public libraries may be for everyone, but unfortunately our “public plazas” are not.

“De facto shelters”
Libraries are typically open during the day, and they provide valuable services, including access to bathrooms, water, computers, electrical outlets, and reading material and other resources, as well as a place to sit indoors. According to the Times Colonist, “Most mornings at the downtown Victoria branch, several homeless people are in the group waiting patiently for the doors to open.”

This phenomenon isn’t specific to Vancouver Island. One former librarian in the United States wrote that libraries often serve as “de facto shelters,” especially when other services may close for part of the day. The CBC has written about Toronto’s libraries being used by homeless people to keep warm in winter and cool in summer.

In response to homeless library-goers, some libraries in other communities have introduced policies to target those people. Edmonton’s libraries banned sleeping, for example, targeting homeless individuals who were using the space. According to their official policy, sleep is “disruptive and/or inappropriate conduct.”

Public squares aren’t so public
Greater Victoria’s libraries may not have banned sleep (as far as I could tell; please correct me if I’m wrong), but they aren’t paragons of virtue, either. The courtyard of the Central Branch is littered with defensive architecture: “No Loitering” signs, skater haters, and un-sleepable benches. There’s a regular security patrol, too. The Nellie McClung and old Emily Carr branches in Saanich have rocks outside that limit possible hangout spots.

David Johnston, who was involved in the court case to allow overnight camping in parks, protested the downtown library’s “No Loitering” signs a decade ago. He was banned from the courtyard for his trouble, before being allowed to use the space only to enter and exit the library. 

The Downtown Victoria Business Association (DVBA) argued that the no loitering signs helped “create a safe and vibrant downtown.” Iain Hunter, writing for the Times Colonist in 2007, said the DVBA’s “ugly signs” created an “unpleasant atmosphere.” “What better place to loiter than the courtyard of our ‘public’ library?” he said. “Are only people with briefcases and Starbucks coffee cups to be allowed that pleasure?”

“No loitering” rules can be ambiguous, and they are often selectively enforced to target homeless and poor individuals. The same can be true outside Victoria’s libraries, as David Johnston demonstrated. If you’re wondering whether or not you’re loitering right this very minute, I’ve made a handy chart to clear up any confusion:

Am I loitering right now?

Your loitering mileage may vary.

Your loitering mileage may vary.

James Bay’s private plaza
Not to be outdone by the downtown branch, the “public plaza” next to the James Bay library will be privately owned. The City agreed that the developers that own the Capital Park development — as well as their “agents” — will be able to kick out or “bar entry” to the plaza anyone who is “disorderly,” “offensive,” or a “nuisance”; anyone who “loiters”; and anyone who “appears to be asleep or unconscious.” Given the selective enforcement of loitering laws, it’s possible these rules may be used disproportionately against homeless and poor Victorians. Regardless of how it plays out, the agreement makes it clear that the plaza is not a public space:

City of Victoria agreement allowing Capital Park owners (“the Transferor”) to limit access to the Central Plaza. Image source: City of Victoria Planning and Land Use Committee (large file size).

City of Victoria agreement allowing Capital Park owners (“the Transferor”) to limit access to the Central Plaza. Image source: City of Victoria Planning and Land Use Committee (large file size).

Similar language was used for Jawl Development’s Douglas and Pandora property, as well as the upcoming additions to Dockside Green in Vic West. Dockside’s agreement seems to be explicitly about homeless Victorians. Anyone who “loiters or appears to be asleep or unconscious or erects a tent, shelter or other type of structure or accommodation” may be barred or ejected from Dockside’s public areas.

I asked the City about the reasons for these agreements last week, and they’ve promised to get back to me. As of now, I don’t know why they chose the words and conditions they did, but the City is responsible for those choices, and for the erosion of what otherwise could have been a public space.

The “Central Public Plaza” at Capital Park. Image source: City of Victoria Planning and Land Use Committee.

The “Central Public Plaza” at Capital Park. Image source: City of Victoria Planning and Land Use Committee.

Welcome to James Bay
The fake public space of Capital Park and its new library will be in a neighbourhood that hasn’t always been the friendliest to Victoria’s homeless population. In 2015, the James Bay Neighbourhood Association (JBNA) called for a camping ban in “all the parks in James Bay, with the exception of Beacon Hill, which is shared with Fairfield.” According to the Times Colonist, the City also removed hedges from James Bay’s Irving Park over ten years ago, “to deter overnight camping.”

Chalk at James Bay’s Irving Park in 2016 says “No Camping!”

Chalk at James Bay’s Irving Park in 2016 says “No Camping!”

One James Bay resident contacted the City about the Capital Park development because they were nervous that “the plazas and associated green space” could result in “homeless people sleeping or camping in public places.” And at least one respondent to a survey about the new library had similar concerns. They thought that the “comfortable seating, warmth & a hygienically clean environment / amenities” might be “vulnerable to those with substance addictions, social maladjustment problems and who otherwise are homeless / vagrants.”

They shouldn’t worry too much, though. In addition to the City’s support for sleeping restrictions in the plaza, the entire development was designed for “24 hour … surveillance of the public courtyards” — by office workers during the day, and by residents at night — to support the City’s “crime prevention” policy. People will be watching the plaza at all times.

JBNA president Marg Gardiner thinks the new library “will provide the community with a public space where each resident is equal and can use it.”

Maybe, when people are inside. When they step outside and into the plaza, it could be a different story.

Stephen Harrison