VANCOUVER — A homeless community in British Columbia's Fraser Valley has won the right to camp overnight in city parks in a legal victory that one advocate says matters for all of Canada.
B.C. Supreme Court Chief Justice Christopher Hinkson ruled on Wednesday that homeless people in Abbotsford are allowed to erect temporary shelters in parkland between 7 p.m. and 9 a.m. because of a lack of accessible shelter space in the city.
"What's clear from today's judgment is that bylaws across the country that criminalize people on the street are not constitutional,'' said DJ Larkin, a lawyer with Pivot Legal Society, an advocacy organization that represented a homeless group in the case.
"The ball is now in the municipality's court, and frankly the whole nation is watching.''
Hinkson's ruling struck down a controversial bylaw banning temporary shelters in local parks and dismissed Abbotsford's request for a permanent injunction against homeless encampments on city property.
The legal action by Abbotsford was the latest attempt to evict homeless campers that began with issuing bylaw notices, but escalated to spreading pepper spray and chicken manure on the camps and finally damaging or disposing of tents and other personal property.
Hinkson issued a harsh rebuke against the city, calling its actions "disgraceful and worthy of the court's disapproval.''
The 81-page decision found that a prohibition on camping breached the homeless people's charter rights to life, liberty and the security of person.
"To criminalize people for being in a park overnight, to stop them from setting up a shelter, is a violation of their rights,'' said Larkin.
"To constantly displace people puts their health and safety at risk. It creates inordinate psychological stress and those are not laws that can be upheld in this country.
Abbotsford Mayor Henry Braun said the city would have to review the decision before deciding whether to appeal.
The judge rejected the city's claim that the campers prefer to live outside, countering the assertion that there are more than enough shelter places to house Abbotsford's homeless.
"Some of them, they just want to be left alone: 'Leave me alone, I want to camp.' And they use that term: camping.'' said Braun. "I'm not sure what to do with that.''
Rich Coleman, B.C.'s minister in charge of housing, said the current Abbotsford council is compassionate, unlike the previous council, which "didn't treat the homeless situation particularly well.''
He said council is now working with the province on construction and planning of a number of shelter buildings and the city is developing a cold-weather strategy.
Wednesday's ruling made frequent reference to a similar 2009 B.C. Court of Appeal decision that upheld the right of homeless people in Victoria to erect temporary shelters in city parks.
Responding to the Abbotsford decision, University of British Columbia law Prof. Margot Young said she was disappointed municipalities in B.C. have failed to act proactively to respond to the constitutional concerns raised in the Victoria case.
"One would have hoped that municipal governments ... would have said, 'Aha, we've got basically that same law on our books. So let's do the decent thing and respect the constitution without having to be taken to the courts,''' said Young.
— With files from Dirk Meissner.
— Follow @gwomand on Twitter.
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