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Judge reserves decision on Prince George homeless camps

Advocates want resolution as cold weather season approaches
(Black Press file)

By Mark Nielsen, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Prince George Citizen

Whether a judge will grant an order to the city to close down two homeless camps in Prince George won’t be known for some time yet.

After a day of hearing arguments from lawyers representing the city and the camps’ occupants, B.C. Supreme Court Justice Christopher Hinkson reserved judgment Wednesday.

Hinkson said he will give the matter some priority and hopes to have a decision ready by the end of next week but made no promises.

The city is seeking an injunction to evict occupants of camps that sprouted up this summer along a strip of land at the end of Fifth Avenue in the light industrial area east of the downtown retail and restaurant district and an empty lot on George Street across from the courthouse.

During the hearing, counsel for the city, Troy DeSouza, framed the matter as a land-use issue, saying the camps are not a permitted use at the sites and are in violation of the City’s zoning bylaw.

Defence counsel Darlene Kavka agreed but contended the order would put them in a bind and argued that Hinkson should take into account the occupants’ “exceptional circumstances.”

Due to barriers to entry into the existing stock of social housing and shortcomings related to emergency shelters, Kavka argued, her clients will have no place to go.

She said the City’s Safe Streets bylaw would only further add to their predicament. Passed by council in August, it gives bylaw enforcement officers authority to issue tickets carrying $100 fines for “nuisance” behaviour like panhandling, open drug use and camping in public areas.

“There is nowhere in the city of Prince George where zoning bylaws will allow them to shelter overnight or during the day,” Kavka said. “The result is that there is no lawful way to comply with the injunction.”

Kavka went on to suggest the City is attempting a “collateral attack to force the homeless out of the city.”

Quoting affidavits from the occupants, Kavka argued they would be better off if the camps remained in place, saying they feel safer and have access to toilets, running water and garbage disposal in the form of a dumpster at the entrance to the camp at the end of Fifth Avenue.

Health care workers and social service providers can more easily find them, Kavka also said, and dismissed allegations that the camps have led to an increase in crime as unfounded.

She did not specifically cite active drug use as a barrier to entry in her presentation to Hinkson, but did mention it in documents filed in advance of the hearing.

At the start of the hearing, Hinkson made note of a recent B.C. Supreme Court decision in which a judge ruled against extending an injunction against anti-logging blockades at Fairy Creek on Vancouver Island, finding the RCMP’s actions risked bringing the court’s reputation into disrepute and went on to question the need for an order.

DeSouza said that the Fairy Creek situation is “hugely political” and that in his experience with similar injunctions imposed on homeless camps elsewhere in B.C., most occupants comply with the law. In Nanaimo, he said just two people ended up being arrested and the apprehensions were made under different procedures.

With winter on its way, time is of the essence, DeSouza said.

“We’re not doing it on behalf of our own interest,” he said. “We’re doing it in the full interest of the residents who have to live there and…we are concerned about their health and we are concerned that if they are allowed to remain there another two weeks, it’s going to be worse for them. People could literally die.”

Due to the deadline for submitting evidence, news that B.C. Housing has leased the Knights Inn in the city’s downtown to provide supported housing could not be submitted to the court.

In an interview after the hearing, DeSouza said the rules of the court require eight days notice for any new evidence and so allowing it to be presented in court would have required an adjournment.

“We didn’t want to adjourn this matter anymore…we’re just trying to get a resolution before the weather turns,” he said.

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