With city shelters stretched to capacity, Occupy Vancouver is needed to give many homeless a place to stay, a lawyer for one of the protesters argued in B.C. Supreme Court Wednesday.
Urging the court not to grant an injunction ordering the month-old tent city dismantled, Jason Gratl said the protest encampment has become a key refuge for those with nowhere to go at night.
About half of those sleeping at the site are homeless, he said. "There are insufficient shelter beds in the city of Vancouver. … They have nowhere else to go."
Outside court, lawyer Michael McCubbin, who represents several protesters, said a survey by Occupy Vancouver estimated that upward of 30 occupants of the site are homeless.
Those involved in providing overnight shelter confirm that, as winter approaches, capacity in the city is virtually full.
The province has cut funding for temporary homeless shelters in the city, arguing that more social housing units this year have made extra beds unnecessary.
But Louise Ghoussoub, who manages shelter referral services in the city, said availability is already very low in the downtown core.
"That means some shelters might have one or two beds, while others would have [none]"
At First United Church in the heart of the Downtown Eastside, the 240 spaces available are almost always full.
"As the weather has changed, we are seeing more people coming inside out of the cold," said the church's deputy executive minister, Sandra Severs.
"We are very concerned that B.C. Housing is not opening up additional winter shelter spaces this year. We are going to be in a difficult situation, shortly."
Salvation Army shelters, too, are at capacity.
Spokesman Brian Venables said the organization remains hopeful the province will change its mind about funding more shelters, as it has in other years.
"When we're full and all the other shelters are full, usually the government does respond in a positive way."
In court, Mr. Gratl said that even available shelter beds are not always safe, pointing to sexual assaults that have occurred.
"Some are unfit for human habitation because of the dangers they pose, especially for women."
In opposing the city's bid for an injunction to end the encampment, Mr. Gratl further argued that the sea of tents at the Art Gallery plaza downtown are inseparable from Occupy Vancouver's protest.
"They are political structures," he declared.
Removing the tents would not only jeopardize the security and safety of homeless individuals sleeping there, it would also infringe on the protesters' right to freedom of expression and assembly, Mr. Gratl told Madam Justice Anne MacKenzie.
When Mr. Gratl went on to list a number of areas where protesters have tried to comply with city requests, the judge asked him, point blank: "Are any of Occupy Vancouver prepared to refrain from tenting?"
Mr. Gratl replied: "My lady, you should hear the evidence."
City of Vancouver lawyer Ben Parkin, meanwhile, said the tents represent a clear breach of the municipality's land-use-regulation bylaw. They are also illegally trespassing on city-leased land, he said, noting that Occupy Vancouver made no attempt to seek a city permit for their protest.
"What we have here is a group of people who have simply taken over the land, without any of the normal safeguards in place."
Argument proceeded after Judge MacKenzie quashed several attempts by lawyers for the protesters to have the hearing delayed.
The case continues Thursday, making it almost certain there will be no ruling on the injunction before Saturday's civic elections, in which the ongoing occupation has become a major issue.