COLUMN: Courts can’t solve homelessness problems

Do homeless people have the right to camp in public parks? Is it really necessary to ask that question? In a court of law?

Do homeless people have the right to camp in public parks?

Is it really necessary to ask that question? In a court of law?

Apparently so. Or at least the Pivot Legal Society does, on behalf of the BC/Yukon Association of Drug War Survivors (DWS).

The City of Abbotsford must be wishing upon wishes that the infamous manure-dumping incident never occurred last summer, because when the Gladys Avenue camp was thusly targeted by civic crews, the homelessness issue in this town got hijacked by special-interest groups.

That’s not to say it wasn’t a serious problem, which was not being dealt with particularly effectively.

That could be said of many communities, of course. However, when the DWS surfaced, and eventually staged a protest camp in Jubilee Park last fall, the issue began an inexorable march to the courts.

The city applied for an injunction to evict the homeless out of the public space. The DWS and Pivot responded by launching a lawsuit, claiming the city’s bylaws against camping in parks is unconstitutional.

It’s ridiculous, of course, but the city has no choice but to do the litigation limbo, with its laywers arguing last week that the case should not proceed to trial.

It shouldn’t, but I suspect it will, despite being a waste of public money.

There are many things wrong with this whole scenario, not the least of which is that the courts are not the place to debate, let alone solve, the issue of homelessness.

Drug and alcohol addiction, and mental health problems cannot be legislated away.

Ordering cities to allow the homeless to camp in public parks isn’t a solution.

But it will put pressure on the public – and in turn the government – to provide more shelter and services for the homeless, their advocates would say.

And that’s precisely why Abbotsford is plodding through this legal exercise.

Whether the homeless sleep in a park or a ditch, the factors that put them there remain.

That’s the real matter of “life and death” for some of them, as DWS calls it, not where they sleep.

The only difference is that the taxpayers who fund the parks won’t be able to use them, because they’ll be turned into trash heaps and outdoor latrines.

Of course, ordinary taxpayers wouldn’t be allowed to set up camp wherever they pleased, either.

That’s why this case should not go to trial, not because there is no individual plaintiff or specific breach of charter rights. Yet the city’s lawyers must argue on points of law, not a legal layman’s sense of what’s fair and proper.

We’ll see what the honorable judge has to say on the matter, but in the meantime, the situation in downtown Abbotsford remains in stasis.

In most any other communities, the teepee town at the end of Gladys would have been removed long ago. It’s an appalling eyesore, as is the small village encamped opposite the Sally Ann further east.

However, with any move it makes immediately seized by DWS and Pivot for possible advantage in court, the city is paralyzed to take action.

As well, I’m told that successful efforts by local social workers to relocate some of the homeless into proper accommodation are being countered, with street people from out of town being encouraged, if not actually assisted, to relocate here.

We have no evidence of that, and can’t point a finger, but it’s clear to see the lawsuit would lose its punch if the problem went away before it gets to court.

And not to forget there’s a complaint before the human rights tribunal on this issue as well.

It could take years before these matters make their way through the legal mazes.

By the time that occurs, perhaps it will all be moot, due to a new, low-barrier homeless shelter with support services that’s been created in this city.

There’s a good thought.

Andrew Holota is the editor of The Abbotsford News.