Twelve years of homelessness

Colleen Aitken shares experiences at Supreme Court trial

Colleen Aitken

Colleen Aitken

In more than a decade of sleeping rough, Colleen Aitken helped parents find their sons and daughters, handed out clean needles and condoms, and earned the moniker “Mom” from dozens of homeless friends.

She also overdosed on fentanyl-tainted heroin, been hit by a car and escaped a dangerous situation by diving out of a second-storey window.

Such is the life of a homeless woman in Abbotsford, Aitken told B.C. Supreme Court justice Christopher Hinkson during a trial to determine whether the city’s bylaws and policies are unconstitutional.

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 say Abbotsford’s bylaws are unconstitutional. They allege that a combination of the city’s bylaws, which prohibit camping in city parks, and a lack of housing options for homeless, put people like Aitken at risk and infringe on their right to security of person.

Aitken, 60, was testifying during two days of Supreme Court hearings in Abbotsford at the Super 8 motel last week. She told the court that while she once owned a business – three, in fact –  she has been without long-term accommodation for 12 years.

In that time, she has met hundreds of others who have lived outside in Abbotsford. She estimated that she currently has around 50 to 60 friends living outdoors just on the eastern side of Abbotsford.

Aitken’s testimony focused on the dangers of living on the streets, the support and help homeless men and women provide each other, and the difficulty she has had in finding and maintaining housing.

Aitken – who has slept in tent encampments, in doorways and under the night sky – said  she doesn’t like sleeping in shelters. It’s difficult to get a good night’s sleep, she told the judge, and in the morning, occupants are roused and must gather all their belongings and hit the street.

“You sleep for a couple hours, then you’re kicked out,” she said. “It makes for a very rough day.”

She said it is not uncommon to be turned away at the Salvation Army shelter because its seven beds for women are full.

Aitken said she preferred sleeping in a tent community along with other men and women. Not only does a tent provide shelter during daylight hours, but it was fellow campers, she said, who helped save her life on the 13 occasions she has overdosed, all of which took place when fentanyl-tainted heroin was making the rounds in Abbotsford.

“All those times, if someone wasn’t around, I wouldn’t be here.” When you overdose, she said, “you drop. Hopefully someone else is around who can call 9-1-1.

Aitken said being a woman living on the streets comes with its own hazards.

“It can be scary,” Aitken testified. “You’ve got to be very cautious, make sure you know who’s around.”

Aitken said trouble often comes along in the form of a man offering a ride, sometimes after a woman has been turned away from a shelter.

“There’s a lot of predators out there,” she said, noting that her former roommate and best girlfriend was murdered several years ago.

Aitken herself has accepted such rides, only for them to end “very badly.”

“There’s one instance that I had where I jumped out of a second-storey window, but it was better to do that than to stay.”

Aitken has been offered housing in the past, but she said those opportunities didn’t work out. One time, she went away for a couple days only to return to find herself evicted and her belongings taken to a tent camp. On another occasion, she was evicted for having “too many friends” over and for supposedly not qualifying for low-income housing, despite having no money.

Earlier in the day, MCC associate executive director Ron Van Wyk told the court about a lack of supports for homeless people who are released from hospital (see story on page A10). Aitken said she had seen those issues first hand. Hospitalized after falling off a series of steps and sustaining a serious head injury, Aitken hit the top of her head and required stitches. But, she testified, at 4:30 a.m., still dizzy and sick to her stomach, she was released from hospital and left to make the long walk back downtown.

“In my opinion, I should not have been released,” she told the court.

One year ago, Aitken was crossing the street at a crosswalk when she was hit by a car. The accident seriously hurt her knee and has left her with reduced sight and hearing.

Today she uses a leg brace while she awaits a knee replacement. It’s difficult to walk even a few blocks, and Aitken said she spent much of her time over the past year at the Gladys Avenue camp, where she could visit with friends and make the short trek to the food bank.

But things are looking up.

After more than an hour on the stand, Aitken visibly brightened when asked about her current living conditions. Two weeks ago, she moved into a basement suite provided and paid for by Raven’s Moon Society.

The suite was a necessity because having a home was a requirement in order to get her knee replacement. The rent for the room – which she said is quiet and comes complete with a big backyard – is $650, but it is also covered. Aitken said it’s the first time someone has paid her rent.

“It’s quite cozy,” she said. “They’ve been very good to me.”

Homeless were paid to protest: witness

The founder of a group suing the City of Abbotsford paid people to participate in a demonstration last month, according to testimony last week at a Supreme Court trial to determine whether three city bylaws are unconstitutional.

Under cross-examination by a city lawyer, Colleen Aitken confirmed that Barry Shantz, the founder of the Abbotsford chapter of the Drug War Survivors (DWS), offered money to those who marched down Gladys Avenue to mark the second anniversary of the spreading of chicken manure on an Abbotsford homeless camp.

The DWS is currently involved in a legal challenge of City of Abbotsford bylaws that prevent people from camping in parks (see story above).

Aitken, who was called as a witness by Pivot, said “Yes, there was money for the ones who participated,” when queried by city lawyer James Yardley about payments to demonstrate.

Aitken called the payments “stipends,” and said “everybody who was there would have done it without [payment].”

The trial continues, with Pivot lawyers expected to finish calling evidence by the middle of the week, after which the city will get its turn to call witnesses.