The Downtown Victoria Business Association (DVBA)’s fourth annual Kiss in the City Contest is meeting some opposition for the first time. A group called the Disruption Collective says the contest further marginalizes those living in poverty by actively excluding them from spaces in the city and gentrifying the downtown area. The group has submitted contest entries that the DVBA has shown disapproval of.
The contest is held on the DVBA Facebook page and calls for individuals to post pictures of themselves kissing their significant other in a downtown location. Each photo posted is an entry to win a number of prizes, including a one-night stay at the Fairmont Empress Hotel, $300 to spend at the Bay Centre, movie passes and more. When the submission period ends on Feb. 7, five “local romance judges” will choose the top 10 entries, which the public will then vote on from Feb. 8–14.
“[The DVBA is] really just trying to inject some fun into the winter months of the year,” says DVBA general manager Ken Kelly.
Winning entries in the past have included artful photographs with popular downtown attractions in the background.
Former UVic students Serina Zapf and Julie Anne Blackpen are the Disruption Collective, which they created to disrupt authorities’ processes and events such as this contest. They are trying to reveal what they feel is being swept under the rug: how the DVBA has dealt with poverty and homelessness downtown. On Jan. 27, they posted photos of people — themselves included — kissing next to private property signs.
“It’s to draw attention to how the DVBA is criminalizing poverty and promoting a consumer-oriented image of downtown,” says Zapf.
They posted three pictures before the DVBA deleted them. When people commented asking why, the DVBA said the photos “did not comply with the spirit” of the contest.
Kelly says the photos “showed very poor taste and poor judgment” — particularly one that showed a couple holding a chalkboard with “DVBA” written above a drawing of feces.
“They know nothing about our organization . . . and it’s unfortunate to disrupt this particular contest in the manner that they have,” he says.
Explaining the Disruption Collective’s approach, Blackpen says, “I’m not interested in having a conversation with [the DVBA] through this action. This is more about having a conversation with the community. I’m not interested in going into their container. I think the space they created is very gentrifying and very exclusive.”
Neither of the groups has tried to contact the other directly.
The DVBA put up the private property signs near privately owned spaces in 2006 with help from the Victoria Police and downtown business owners. They were originally a response to “a group [of people] who could simply not respect the rights of property owners to keep things clean, tidy and welcoming,” says Kelly.
People cannot trespass, loiter, camp or solicit in these marked spaces, and people who do can be arrested on the grounds of the B.C. Trespass Act.
This results in social profiling by police, say Zapf and Blackpen.
“It means poor people who have nowhere to live, nowhere to go, they’re being excluded from all spaces in the city,” says Zapf. “There’s a lot of stigma caught up in the street community where we no longer see people in our neighbourhoods as people.”
Some conditions may have changed since the signs were posted. Kelly says, “I don’t think there has been the degree of reason that there was formerly to have those signs up there.” However, he says the signs will not come down.
“While most of our owners are very appreciative of the plight that some people find themselves in,” says Kelly, “if those people are not showing respect to the owner or the business that occupies that space, then there will have to be some means by which those individuals be politely but effectively asked to move along, and those signs do that. There should be no blurring of boundaries on this. We’re talking not public space, but private space.”
Zapf and Blackpen also note the Victoria Integrated Court (VIC) system, which the DVBA helped establish in 2010. They believe the private property signs increase convictions for street-involved people, creating a pool of workers who — through the VIC — are forced to do community service. This claim has “absolutely no semblance to what reality is,” says Kelly.
According to the DVBA website, the DVBA is a “community service partner for those convicted in the courts.” Community service sentences are carried out with the DVBA’s Clean Team and other community organizations, including Our Place. This work is unpaid as it is in lieu of other punishments such as fines. Kelly adds that the Clean Team program often hires clients of the VIC to clean up the downtown core.
“We have been able to help them in a small way by giving them assistance, by employing them,” adds Kelly.
The VIC was created through the B.C. Attorney General to address increasing crimes committed by individuals with unstable housing and mental health and/or addiction issues, and to deal with the resulting demands on emergency service and health service providers. It operates outside the regular courts and combines the justice system with health and social services in hopes of reducing repeat offences. According to a 2011 Provincial Court of B.C. report, all groups involved with the VIC strongly believe in community service as a way of making offenders pay for their crimes.
The Victoria Public Interest Research Group (VIPIRG) and the Radical Health Alliance, a working group of VIPIRG, regularly speak out against the way city organizations deal with street-involved people in Victoria and express concern with the VIC system.
“I’m deeply troubled,” says VIPIRG Research Co-ordinator Seb Bonet, “that the DVBA advocated for this court and are benefitting from it by having people serve [with] their so-called Clean Team.”
Kelly feels issues around poverty and homelessness are improving. “The downtown service providers, the City of Victoria, the police, the business community, the courts — everybody has worked together to address these challenges that our community has faced,” he says.
The Disruption Collective aims to use the lighthearted nature of the Kiss in the City Contest to bring awareness to more serious issues.
“I hope through something that’s playful and fun, people will learn a little bit more. There has been a lot of writing [done by other groups], and there have been a lot of campaigns, but it doesn’t seem to be coming home,” says Zapf.
Since their initial posts on the DVBA Facebook page got deleted, the Disruption Collective has posted more photos, which have not been removed.