Tent cities occupied by homeless people in Abbotsford and Vancouver are likely to be in place over the winter months, despite legal efforts to evict them, says a civil rights lawyer.
The colourful tent cities, now sagging under fall rains and with police expressing concerns about the safety of those living there, have become troubling backdrops for municipal politicians running for election this fall. But efforts by mayoral candidates to come up with quick fixes are unlikely to succeed given the complicated legal landscape.
D.J. Larkin, a lawyer with Pivot Legal Society, said at a news conference Monday that even if the City of Vancouver is granted an injunction to dismantle a tent city at Oppenheimer Park, it will likely lead to more court challenges, as has already happened in Abbotsford.
In Abbotsford, she said, after the city got an injunction to evict people from Jubilee Park the group moved to a new camp, and Pivot filed an action claiming the city had violated the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. That case is expected to go to trial in 2015 – and the tent camp remains in place, despite some controversial efforts by Abbotsford to dislodge campers, including at one point having workers spread chicken manure nearby.
A similar legal scenario could evolve in Vancouver, she said, if the Supreme Court of British Columbia grants the city an injunction to force an estimated 400 people out of Oppenheimer Park in the Downtown Eastside, where they have been living in 200 tents for several months.
In Vancouver the city is arguing the tent camp is unsafe and that it has housing available. But Ms. Larkin said homeless people don't regard the existing shelters as safe and the promised new housing won't be ready for months.
The court may rule on Vancouver's injunction request as early as Tuesday, although Ms. Larkin filed an application Monday asking for a 10-day adjournment.
She said court isn't the way to resolve the problem and called on three levels of government to rally together to tackle homelessness across the country.
"You are going to see tent cities all across this country until the national and provincial governments do something about it," she said. "We see camps like this happening in Abbotsford and Vancouver here because our federal government has failed. We have no national housing plan."
Ms. Larkin said the homeless situation in B.C. is "at the crisis level and the resources they are throwing at people right now are just barely enough to start the ball rolling again."
She said the problem has now fallen on the shoulders of the municipalities which are using bylaws to try to push the problem out of sight.
"We have to stop using these bylaws to criminalize people," Ms. Larkin said. "We have the resources and the compassion in Canada to make this happen and it's time for the criminalization to stop."
When Vancouver asked for an injunction to move people from Oppenheimer Park, several city officials swore affidavits about the negative effects for other park users and about the amount of housing that is available for people who are truly homeless.
Jim de Hoop, the city's director of social development, said that local shelters had 45 to 55 empty spaces each night when the Oppenheimer camp started in the summer. In July, the city opened another 15 spaces at the Evelyne Saller centre nearby, and last week, it opened 40 spaces at 900 Pacific St. and 30 at Union Gospel Mission.
Mr. de Hoop stated there is enough room in shelters, interim housing and single-room occupancy hotels to house everyone at the camp who still needs housing. The city's chief housing officer, Mukhtar Latif, also gave evidence that only six people had chosen to take advantage of the 70 new shelter beds opened last week. And he emphasized that, between those new shelter spaces, new provincial social housing about to come on stream, and a downtown hotel the city is leasing for the next two years, there are 476 places available or opening soon for homeless people living on the street in Vancouver.
Mayor Gregor Robertson said city officials are talking to the province about providing its usual funding for their operations. But Housing Minister Rich Coleman says that won't be happening.
"This is something the city's done on a unilateral basis," he said. "It's their deal; they made it. I haven't heard from the mayor on this. And it's a bit ad hoc, quite frankly."
Frances Bula is a freelance writer