Abbotsford homeless trial hears testimony about city inaction

MCC's Ron Van Wyk said recommendations developed by Abbotsford Social Development Advocacy Committee seemed to go nowhere until 2014.

A city bylaw now being challenged in court was the basis for an injunction used to evict a protest camp at Jubilee Park in November of 2013.

A city bylaw now being challenged in court was the basis for an injunction used to evict a protest camp at Jubilee Park in November of 2013.

Years of frustration with a lack of city action to help the chronically homeless in Abbotsford was the focus of testimony by Ron Van Wyk, Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) associate executive director, before a Supreme Court justice last Thursday.

Van Wyk, who served on the Abbotsford Social Development Advocacy Committee (ASDAC), was giving evidence Thursday during a trial to determine the constitutionality of the city’s ban on camping in parks and two other bylaws.

He told the court that recommendations developed by that group between 2006 and 2008 were not taken up by the city.

“I can see no evidence that it has been implemented in the sense that it has made a difference to people living chronically homeless in Abbotsford,” he said.

He said ASDAC had also recommended the creation of a “sobering centre” that would provide more support to those addicted to drugs, and confirmed that ASDAC had first recommended a housing-first approach to homelessness at a meeting in 2006.

It wasn’t until last year that the city adopted a homelessness action plan and moved on several recommendations contained within it, Van Wyk said. That was also the year that the city finally “embraced the idea of housing-first,” he said.

Lawyers affiliated with Pivot Legal Society are suing the city on behalf of the BC/Yukon Drug War Survivors (DWS), a group of homeless activists who allege that Abbotsford’s bylaws and actions undertaken by city staff have discriminated against the homeless and breached their rights to security of person.

Lawyers for the homeless say a combination of Abbotsford’s bylaws and a lack of housing options for homeless put the homeless population at risk. Pivot is also arguing that the rules breach the homeless population’s charter rights to freedom of assembly by making it illegal to camp together.

Thursday’s testimony was the second of two days being held in Abbotsford in a meeting room at the Super 8 hotel. The court was moved to Abbotsford to allow for the testimony of homeless people. Five such men and women gave evidence, along with Van Wyk. (See the July 15 Abbotsford News for testimony from one of the homeless women). The rest of the trial will be held in New Westminster.

Van Wyk also told the court that he and his fellow committee members found significant gaps in care for homeless people who are discharged from hospital.

“There is no facility, there is no service that can take care of them and provide support on an ongoing basis,” he said.

Van Wyk also spoke about emotions surrounding the eviction of homeless campers who had set up tents on MCC property.

He said the city had told MCC it had received complaints about the campers and that it must evict those camping on its property.

While he said MCC tried to mitigate the effects of the eviction by providing notice and storage for belongings, Van Wyk — who has also co-ordinated regular counts of the homeless for the Fraser Valley Regional District – said the process “was heart-wrenching for me, given the work I’ve done for more than a decade.”

Under cross-examination by City of Abbotsford lawyer James Yardley, Van Wyk acknowledged that several local organizations did exist to help the homeless.

But, he added: “The facilities that are there are good facilities, but there are not enough of them.

“People continue to be dropped off in Abbotsford as they are discharged [from hospital] and they have nothing and nowhere to go.”

The trial moved back to New Westminster Friday.

Pivot lawyers expect to conclude their evidence Tuesday, after which the city will present its case.

Check Wednesday’s Abbotsford News for more from Thursday’s testimony.