UPDATE: Trial begins in homeless human rights lawsuit

Lawsuit challenges City of Abbotsford bylaws against camping in parks

A potentially precedent-setting legal case for the homeless began Monday with lawyers telling a B.C. Supreme Court justice that the City of Abbotsford’s ban on camping in parks is unconstitutional given a lack of accessible housing options for street people.

David Wotherspoon and lawyers affiliated with Pivot Legal Society are suing the city on behalf of homeless activists affiliated with the BC/Yukon Drug War Survivors (DWS). They allege that city bylaws and actions undertaken by city staff have discriminated against the homeless and breached their rights to security of person.

If successful, Pivot hopes the result of the suit could be felt beyond Abbotsford and spur municipalities around the province to increase supports for the homeless. The trial is expected to last six weeks.

In his opening arguments before Chief Justice Christopher Hinkson and a gallery of more than 30 people, including some whom he said were homeless, Wotherspoon referenced a 2014 homeless count that found 151 people with no homes, and which he said probably understates the scale of the problem. Wotherspoon said there are currently only 25 shelter spots, and that given those numbers, bylaws which prohibit camping on city land are unjust.

“We will argue those individuals have been left with no safe option, no safe place they can legally be,” said Wotherspoon, who was joined by two other Pivot lawyers.

The lawsuit was filed last year, after the city was granted a court injunction based on the bylaw that allowed them to evict a protest camp in Jubilee Park in November of 2013. That camp had been established after city officials spread chicken manure on the site of a homeless camp on Gladys Avenue several months earlier.

Wotherspoon said the combination of Abbotsford’s bylaws and a lack of housing options for homeless combine to 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. He described his clients as “people who camp together for safety and protection of their belongings.”

In his opening statements, Wotherspoon accused the city of attempting “to make homeless people invisible.”

Wotherspoon noted the City of Abbotsford hasn’t closed a “protest camp” currently set up on city land on Gladys, but he said the city hasn’t taken enough action in the past year to address the issue.

He also cited the previous council’s decision last year to reject a proposal for a supportive housing facility. He acknowledged that a subsequent project has been approved, but noted it won’t be operational until next year.

He said Abbotsford isn’t obliged to house its homeless population, but in the absence of shelter options,  he said the city’s bylaws that bar them from city parks overnight breach their right to security.

While he said there have been discussions that led to the creation of homelessness task force, “what [Abbotsford] hasn’t had is any on-the-ground change.”

He said alternatives exist, and referred to a proposal last year for a homeless village.

“Abbotsford has had the opportunity to implement safer alternatives, but hasn’t done so.”

The Pivot lawyers will attempt to prove the bylaws are “arbitrary,” “overly broad,” and “grossly disproportionate.” Over the next two and a half weeks, they will call a number of witnesses, both from the homeless community and local groups that work to assist them. Rod Santiago from Abbotsford Community Services (ACS) will testify, as will the Salvation Army’s Nate McCready and Mennonite Central Committee’s Ron Van Wyk.

The city will present its case at the conclusion of the plaintiff’s evidence. City of Abbotsford lawyer James Yardley expects to finish calling evidence around the end of the month.

Following his opening statement, Wotherspoon called as a witness 5 and 2 Ministries pastor Jesse Wegenast, who also administers a homelessness prevention program for ACS.

Wegenast said addiction and behavioural issues make it difficult to secure housing for the homeless, and some of those options are found in “deplorable” condition. He said he has seen apartments with serious mould issues, sunken toilets, broken windows and lewd acts taking place in stairways.

The existing shelter spaces are not accessible to all people, he said, with some preferring high-barrier options which others are unable to use.

Wegenast told the court that he has only been able to find housing for about half of the clients he works with. And more often than not, those clients are evicted or leave that housing within a short span of time.

Under cross-examination from city lawyer James Yardley, Wegenast said many camps are erected on land owned by private persons or businesses, rather than the city.

Yardley also asked Wegenast about working with the city to find housing for a couple who had been living in a camp on BC Hydro land that had been evicted.

Service groups had been pressing the city to provide housing, and the city offered a home to the evicted man and woman

The result, Wegenast said, was a disaster. Not long after the pair moved into the home, he said another man with criminal ties “muscled his way in” and took up residence. Within months, all were back on the street.

“The city made that step?” Yardley asked about providing the house.

“Yes.”

“And they got burned?”

“Yes.”

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Cemetery staff installed the wrong headstone on the grave of Jima Kiir, even though the headstone’s photo did not match with the photo placed on the grave. (Submitted photo)
Abbotsford mother upset city placed wrong headstone on son’s grave

Cemetery staff mix up graves of 2 recently deceased men from South Sudanese community

View looking south from Mt. Archibald, taking in the proposed ski terrain of Bridal Veil Mountain Resort, with Mt. Mercer (centre left) and Mt. Thurston (centre right, shrouded in cloud).
Ambitious all-season mountain resort proposed near Chilliwack

Proponents say Bridal Veil Mountain Resort could cover 11,500 acres bring in $252 million a year

Passengers aboard Komagata Maru in Vancouver’s Burrard Inlet, 1914. (Library and Archives Canada image)
Abbotsford city staff to work with 4 groups to commemorate Komagata Maru tragedy

Options to be considered for ‘lasting memorial’ to honour victims of 1914 incident

A photo illustration shows a fountain planned for Mill Lake. (City of Abbotsford photo)
UPDATED: City approves $200K fountain for Mill Lake using donated funds

Project will improve lake quality and ecosystem, say Abbotsford city staff

Linnea Labbee outside the Chilliwack Law Courts on April 1, 2021 on day 16 of her trial in BC Supreme Court where she is charged in connection with the fatal hit-and-run of a 78-year-old woman on Mary Street on Dec. 1, 2016. (Paul Henderson/ Chilliwack Progress)
Crown seeking jail time for 72-year-old Chilliwack woman found guilty in fatal hit-and-run

Trial of Linnea Labbee who struck and killed 78-year-old woman in 2016 ended Monday

Burnaby MLA Raj Chouhan presides as Speaker of the B.C. legislature, which opened it spring session April 12 with a speech from the throne. THE CANADIAN PRESS
B.C. NDP promises more health care spending, business support in 2021 budget

John Horgan government to ‘carefully return to balanced budgets’

Dr. E. Kwok administers a COVID-19 vaccine to a recipient at a vaccination clinic run by Vancouver Coastal Health, in Richmond, B.C., Saturday, April 10, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
Most Canadians plan to get COVID-19 vaccine, but safety fears drive hesitancy: poll

This comes as confidence in governments is plummeting in provinces being hit hardest by the pandemic

Marathon of Hope runner Terry Fox is shown in a 1981. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/CP)
Terry Fox’s legacy of resilience resonates during COVID-19 crisis, says brother

Fred Fox said his brother’s legacy of resilience has taken on renewed resonance as COVID-19 rages on

A youth was arrested following a car crash on Wallace Street on Saturday, April 10. (Karl Yu/News Bulletin)
Onlookers laugh and jeer as B.C. teen beaten, then forced to strip and walk home

Police arrest older teen, call video shared on social media ‘disturbing’

Surrey RCMP are seeking the public's help to locate three puppies stolen from a South Surrey home on April 10. (Surrey RCMP photos)
Puppies stolen during weekend break-and-enter in South Surrey

Surrey RCMP seeking public’s assistance in locating three American Bulldog puppies

A lady wears a sticker given out after receiving a COVID-19 vaccine at a clinic in Richmond, B.C., Saturday, April 10, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS
B.C.’s COVID-19 case count slows after last week’s peak

3,219 new cases since Friday, 18 additional deaths

North Cowichan councillor Tek Manhas did not violate the municipality’s code of conduct by posting a sexist meme on Facebook, council concludes. (File photo)
B.C. municipality to take no action against councillor who posted sexist meme

Tek Manhas’s meme doesn’t violate North Cowichan council’s code of conduct, municipality concludes

Guinevere, lovingly referred to by Jackee Sullivan and her family as Gwenny, is in need of a gynecological surgery. The family is raising money to help offset the cost of the procedure. (Jackee Sullivan/Special to Langley Advance Times)
Langley lizard’s owners raise funds for gynecological surgery

The young reptile is scheduled for operation on Tuesday

Cannabis bought in British Columbia (Ashley Wadhwani/Black Press Media)
Is it time to start thinking about greener ways to package cannabis?

Packaging suppliers are still figuring eco-friendly and affordable packaging options that fit the mandates of Cannabis Regulations

Most Read