Ruling shines spotlight on homeless

Latest decision on overnight park camping ups pressure on cities, governments to act on homelessness, housing and mental health

Part of the homeless encampment in Abbotsford that precipitated a court battle with the city.

A leading municipal lawyer predicts cities and senior governments will be under increased pressure to house the homeless as a result of a new court ruling that they can’t be stopped from camping in parks overnight.

Jonathan Baker says the B.C. Supreme Court decision that Abbotsford can’t evict the homeless from a municipal park has broad implications for other communities, which may see more camps spring up in public spaces.

By making homeless tents a potential ongoing legal fixture in local parks, he said, the court has sent a signal that the problem can’t simply be covered up or chased away.

“You can’t govern by shoving a problem from neighbourhood to neighbourhood or from city to city,” Baker said. “You can’t do it with environmental pollution and you can’t do it with mental health. That’s what this means.”

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He said the Abbotsford decision by Chief Justice Christopher Hinkson was “very balanced” in that it did not require permanent homeless camps to be established. Advocates there had demanded a designated tent city, with facilities including washrooms.

It largely mirrors a 2008 B.C. Court of Appeal ruling on use of parks in Victoria.

In both cases, courts have held that cities with insufficient shelter spaces for local homeless can’t enforce their bylaws that normally prohibit overnight camping in parks, although tents must come down during the day so parks can be enjoyed by other citizens.

In Victoria, that’s meant daily police patrols to rouse homeless campers each morning at 9 a.m. and cajole them to take down their tents until 7 p.m., when they can go back up again.

“Both courts are saying that the problem of people camping in parks is really a major mental health and social problem and ultimately it has to be addressed by governments, one way or another,” Baker said.

He called it a “marked departure” by the judiciary from 1984, when B.C. Supreme Court let the City of Vancouver oust sex workers from the West End, prompting them to migrate to other neighbourhoods.

He said sees “tremendous” potential for an appeal of the Abbotsford ruling – if either side sees enough potential benefit for the cost.

In the meantime, he said, all levels of government should redouble their efforts to work together to provide lasting solutions.

Baker said too many municipalities are concocting new definitions of low-cost housing that translate into tiny yet expensive apartments and fail to respond to the problem.

Some of the homeless simply can’t be housed conventionally, he said, adding some may need a modern type of institutionalization that blends support with some freedom.

That will take political will from the provincial or federal government, he said, because it requires a coordinated approach across municipal boundaries.

“If any one municipality came up with a true solution to homelessness – providing shelter of some sort – that’s where everybody would go and there’d be a shortage again.”

Maple Ridge grappled with a tent city along a public street this year.

The municipality waited until a new winter shelter opened and then persuaded the camped homeless to relocate, many of them to subsidized rentals, although officials had been prepared to use an injunction if necessary.

A winter shelter is being opened this year in Surrey, which is home to the second largest number of estimated homeless in the region after Vancouver and has also sought to remove tent encampments.

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