Local advocates for the homeless are pleased the B.C. Supreme Court struck down portions of an Abbotsford bylaw banning sheltered sleeping in parks, but they say sleeping outside isn’t a permanent solution.
“We feel that [allowing] shelter overnight in park spaces is not a long-term solution to homelessness in our community,” said Ron Van Wyk, director of programs at Mennonite Central Committee BC in Abbotsford and the leader of its homelessness-related charity work.
Van Wyk and Jesse Wegenast of 5 and 2 Ministries, both of whom testified in the trial earlier this year about challenges facing the homeless, say the ruling affirms Abbotsford has a housing problem – and action is needed to fix it.
“I was pleased to see the judge acknowledged that Abbotsford does not have a space available for everyone,” said Wegenast.
In the decision, issued Oct. 20, B.C. Supreme Court Chief Justice Christopher Hinkson wrote that if an area doesn’t have enough shelter spaces for homeless people, it’s unconstitutional to ban them from protecting themselves from the elements while sleeping outside.
Based on testimony from Wegenast, Van Wyk and others, Hinkson determined that shelter space in Abbotsford is inadequate. The city had contended at trial that homeless had shelter options.
Wegenast and Van Wyk both think that this decision shines a spotlight on the unavailability of housing in Abbotsford.
“What this ruling really points to is an acknowledgment that we don’t have enough housing that people can afford to rent,” Wegenast said. He says many people he has worked with have trouble finding a landlord willing to rent to someone who was recently homeless.
“It’s an intensely competitive and expensive rental market,” he said.
“Someone attempting to move from homelessness to housing [may be] not very appealing to landlords. It makes complete sense, but that can be very challenging.”
Both advocates believe a variety of approaches are needed to help ease the housing crunch. While crisis shelter space is helpful, longer-term housing options are also needed.
“There’s also a need for more immediate responses, to be able to have a safe shelter overnight…people are at various places in their journeys,” Van Wyk said.
To make more affordable long-term housing possible, Wegenast suggests a variety of approaches: from market-based options like density bonusing to publicly funded programs.
“Some combination of the two is need,” Wegenast said. “We can’t create subsidized housing ad infinitum, it needs to be a multi-pronged approach.”
Van Wyk said what’s needed is a national housing strategy, and he hopes campaign promises to this effect by the Liberal Party of Canada will soon become a reality.
During the federal election campaign, Justin Trudeau and his party promised a housing strategy, along with funding for seniors’ housing and affordable-housing initiatives.
Based on his experience working with the homeless in Abbotsford, Van Wyk thinks a national strategy should follow the “Housing First” model and offer a variety of different options.
The “Housing First” model is currently at the forefront of homelessness advocacy, and is endorsed federally, provincially and municipally. The approach assumes that matters such as addiction and mental health issues cannot be solved in isolation. It supposes that finding stable housing is the essential first step to helping someone get back on their feet.
Mayor Henry Braun echoed Van Wyk’s call for a national housing strategy. Braun said municipalities just don’t have the resources to fully address complex and expensive social issues.
“We need the help of senior levels of government,” he told The News. Braun noted that Canada was the only G8 country without a national housing strategy.
Braun said the city has invested money in housing, pointing to its donation of the land for a 31-unit supportive housing project on Gladys Avenue. But he said a federal plan to assist the homeless is overdue, adding that he hopes to discuss the issue with newly elected Mission-Matsqui-Fraser Canyon Liberal MP Jati Sidhu.
Meanwhile, a leading municipal lawyer predicts last week’s ruling will put other cities and senior governments under increased pressure to house the homeless.
Jonathan Baker says the decision will have broad implications for other communities, which may see more camps spring up in public spaces.
By making homeless tents a potential ongoing legal fixture in local parks, he said, the court has sent a signal that the problem can’t simply be covered up or chased away.
“You can’t govern by shoving a problem from neighbourhood to neighbourhood or from city to city,” Baker said. “You can’t do it with environmental pollution and you can’t do it with mental health. That’s what this means.”
He said the decision by Chief Justice Christopher Hinkson was “very balanced” in that it did not require permanent homeless camps to be established. Advocates there had demanded a designated tent city, with facilities including washrooms.
It largely mirrors a 2008 B.C. Court of Appeal ruling on use of parks in Victoria.
In both cases, courts have held that cities with insufficient shelter spaces for local homeless can’t enforce their bylaws that normally prohibit overnight camping in parks, although tents must come down during the day so parks can be enjoyed by other citizens.
“Both courts are saying that the problem of people camping in parks is really a major mental health and social problem and ultimately it has to be addressed by governments, one way or another,” Baker said.
He called it a “marked departure” by the judiciary from 1984, when B.C. Supreme Court let the City of Vancouver oust sex workers from the West End, prompting them to migrate to other neighbourhoods. He said sees “tremendous” potential for an appeal of the Abbotsford ruling – if either side sees enough potential benefit for the cost.
In the meantime, he said, all levels of government should redouble their efforts to work together to provide lasting solutions.
Baker said too many municipalities are concocting new definitions of low-cost housing that translate into tiny yet expensive apartments and fail to respond to the problem.
Some of the homeless simply can’t be housed conventionally, he said, adding some may need a modern type of institutionalization that blends support with some freedom.
That will take political will from the provincial or federal government, he said, because it requires a co-ordinated approach across municipal boundaries.
“If any one municipality came up with a true solution to homelessness – providing shelter of some sort – that’s where everybody would go and there’d be a shortage again.”
Maple Ridge grappled with a tent city along a public street this year.
The municipality waited until a new winter shelter opened and then persuaded the camped homeless to relocate, many of them to subsidized rentals, although officials had been prepared to use an injunction if necessary.
A winter shelter is being opened this year in Surrey, which is home to the second largest number of estimated homeless in the region after Vancouver and has also sought to remove tent encampments.
With files from Tyler Olsen