BCCLA joins homeless legal challenge

Civil liberties group will be intervenor in lawsuit over camping in Abbotsford parks

A homeless camp remains on Gladys Avenue as a legal challenge against city bylaws continues.

A homeless camp remains on Gladys Avenue as a legal challenge against city bylaws continues.

The B.C. Civil Liberties Association (BCCLA) has gained intervenor status in a lawsuit against the City of Abbotsford – launched by members of the homeless community and their advocates – arguing city bylaws against camping in parks are unconstitutional.

The city is in the midst of a legal challenge from an advocacy group, the B.C./Yukon Association of Drug War Survivors, and non-profit legal organization Pivot Legal Society, which are representing some of the homeless in Abbotsford.

In a trial expected to proceed in June, Pivot lawyers will argue the city’s bylaws that prohibit camping in parks and erecting structures are unconstitutional. Pivot lawyer DJ Larkin has said that the laws essentially criminalize being homeless.

Laura Track, staff legal counsel with the BCCLA, said their role as an intervenor will be to offer the court “broader perspective on the systemic issues at stake in the case.”

She said there are significant human rights and civil liberties issues involved and it is important for the court to have more analysis as they consider the impacts of Abbotsford bylaws on the homeless population.

Equal access to public spaces is critical to the dignity and autonomy of all people, said Track, adding that the city’s bylaws have deprived the homeless of their access. She said the restrictions are “particularly egregious” to people who are homeless because they do not have access to private space.

BCCLA hopes to see the Abbotsford bylaws that prevent people from being in parks after 10 p.m. and from erecting shelters to be struck down, she said.

Track explained that the bylaws are similar to those at issue in a court case involving the city of Victoria in 2008, when the BC Supreme Court held that city bylaws prohibiting the homeless from erecting shelters in a city park violated their Charter rights if shelter was unavailable. The decision was upheld in 2009 by the BC Court of Appeal.

The Victoria precedent should be applied across the province, said Track, but noted cities like Abbotsford take the position that it does not. She said they hope the litigation ensures “people experiencing homelessness and their advocates don’t have to continue to challenge these bylaws one at a time.”

She said that while most communities have similar bylaws, not all communities have the same level of homelessness that Abbotsford does.

“We are hoping that Abbotsford will bolster the precedent set in Victoria and remind municipalities across the province of their obligations not to enact bylaws that harm their homeless populations.”

She said they aren’t satisfied with homeless people living in poor conditions on the street, but they need to start with ensuring that people can be safe.

The News requested an interview with Mayor Henry Braun, who was unavailable before press deadline. The city responded with a statement indicating that the City of Abbotsford is unable to comment on matters that are currently before the court.

Abbotsford has recently announced new supportive housing that will house 20 homeless men in the community, and an assertive community treatment (ACT) team, which will provide on-the-ground services such as health care to people on the streets.

Track said “it’s great news and will make a huge difference to the residents of Abbotsford – it doesn’t change what has happened in the past and certainly doesn’t change our view about the constitutionality of these bylaws.”