Homeless residents of Abbotsford, B.C., are set to argue before a Supreme Court judge that it is their constitutional right to sleep in parks and erect survival shelters when adequate housing and shelter spaces are not available.
The six-week trial between the B.C./Yukon Association of Drug War Survivors, known as DWS, and the city of Abbotsford begins Monday in B.C. Supreme Court in New Westminster.
D.J. Larkin, a housing lawyer at Pivot Legal Society, which is representing the DWS, says at the heart of the issue is the ability of homeless people to protect themselves and obtain the necessities of life.
"It's about having the liberty and freedom to sleep somewhere, and protect yourself from the elements, in circumstances where government has failed to provide adequate resources for people to do that," Ms. Larkin said.
A 2014 count by the Fraser Valley Regional District and the Mennonite Central Committee identified at least 151 homeless people in Abbotsford that year.
Pivot will challenge three Abbotsford city bylaws: the Consolidated Parks Bylaw, the Consolidated Street and Traffic Bylaw and the Consolidated Good Neighbour Bylaw.
The lawsuit follows a number of actions by city officials apparently intended to displace homeless residents. This includes Abbotsford police officers slashing tents and used bear spray on homeless people's belongings and city workers spreading chicken manure on a long-standing homeless camp.
Lawyers for the DWS are expected to argue the city is essentially criminalizing homelessness, displacing homeless residents without considering the effects.
Ms. Larkin said the goal is not to allow unrestricted occupation of parks and other public spaces, but to balance the rights of those who rely on public spaces for survival with the rights of others who want to access those spaces. This could include designated outdoor areas with bathroom facilities for homeless people, for example.
Ms. Larkin pointed to the city of Victoria, which is mulling creative solutions such as garden shed-sized micro-homes for the homeless.
The DWS filed its case in March, 2014. The city sought to have the case dismissed, arguing that the DWS lacked legal standing to bring the lawsuit, but a B.C. Supreme Court judge rejected that argument.
Henry Braun, a former Abbotsford councillor who was elected mayor last November, was not available for an interview on Sunday. In an e-mail, he highlighted a number of positive announcements from the past several months, including a new 50-bed mental-health facility potentially opening in 2016 – 20 of those beds are new – and the redevelopment of the Kinghaven Treatment Centre for Men, which saw the addition of four new beds, bringing the total to 62.
The Fraser Health Authority and the provincial government have also contributed $2-million each to fund an Assertive Community Treatment team – a specialized mobile treatment and support program – for Abbotsford and Mission.
Jesse Wegenast, a pastor at the 5 and 2 Ministries, said Abbotsford has taken baby steps toward tackling the issue of homelessness.
"It's frustrating," Mr. Wegenast said. "It seems like every few months there's some type of announcement, and people get together and pat each other on the back, [but] we don't really see that translated into on-the-ground work."