VANCOUVER - A judge has provided one week for homeless residents of a squalid tent city to vacate a downtown Vancouver park, in a ruling advocates say at long last places the problem of poverty at the city's doorstep.
All of about 200 makeshift shelters must come down by 10 p.m. on Oct. 15, or city workers may proceed with the dismantling, Justice Jennifer Duncan of B.C. Supreme Court ruled on Wednesday, while recognizing the campers are people living in "poverty and despair."
"This is the first time in history that a court has given this much time and has acknowledged that this is not a matter of protest," lawyer DJ Larkin, with Pivot Legal Society, told reporters outside court.
"She truly understood that these are people who need homes, they need outreach and they need services."
The encampment in Oppenheimer Park, in the city's stricken Downtown Eastside, sprouted in late July when homeless campers began to assemble in violation of city bylaws. The Vancouver Park Board took the matter to court on Sept. 25 after neither an eviction notice nor two orders from the fire chief to remove safety hazards persuaded people to leave.
The months-long illegal occupancy in the "backyard for the Downtown Eastside" has resulted in the cancellation of three community events, while concerns mounted over candles and smoking in tents, unattended ceremonial fires and shelters so close they could all go up in flames.
Authorities reported fights, a person swinging weapons, rats and buckets of urine and feces, along with public drunkenness and drugs.
Many residents of the tent city had been living in shelters or on the streets. Pivot Legal Society represented the campers, arguing there are not enough beds or safe conditions in the city shelters, but the city contends it has been continuously increasing the number of beds.
The city will open more temporary housing next week, which is partly why the judge set the evacuation deadline for next week. Duncan stated there were no "exceptional circumstances" that should legally prevent her from granting the injunction.
But she said information about the camp's occupants paints a picture of a population living in troubling circumstances, with no ability to extricate themselves without help.
"It may be that there is a need for a more streamlined process of accessing available shelter spaces or other measures to assist marginalized members of society," she told the packed gallery. "But an inquiry of that nature is well beyond the scope of my limited jurisdiction."
Outbursts of anger and tears were present outside court, as advocates for the homeless campers mulled over what to do and how to advise the community.
Dan Wallace spoke with a clenched jaw as he said the group will have to take a stand and figure out how to push the situation further so the city understands it must take real action.
The temporary shelter on offer can be worse than the tent city, with cockroaches, bed bugs and often just one bathroom for an entire floor, he said.
Brody Williams, who took on a leadership role within the camp, said he's not comforted by the judge's belief authorities will remove structures in an "orderly and sensitive" manner.
"This is the mayor's problem. The mayor has not lived up to his problem for the City of Vancouver to bring homes to the homeless."
Mayor Gregor Robertson said later that ultimately, the city will need more support from the provincial and federal government to address the social housing shortage.
"The shelter doesn't always work for everyone," he agreed in an interview, noting mental health and addictions are issues for people in the park.
"We've been pushing hard and we're getting some results on this, but clearly we need more in the very short term to ensure that all of the people who are coming out of the park have a place that makes sense."
After the ruling, tears slid down the face of Scott Bonnyman, who has been living at the camp since August. Sitting in his motorized wheelchair, the 52-year-old lifted his pants to show a large, bloodied bandage encircling his lower right leg.
"Where do I go? I go to a doorway, OK? Shame on the mayor," he said, explaining he has cancer.
"I felt more secure in the park than I did anywhere. I made family. I have no family, I have nobody."
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