On June 4, 2015, members of the Abbotsford Chapter of the Drug War Survivors and their allies gathered at the Happy Tree for a march down Gladys Ave to mark the anniversary of the infamous chicken shit incident. Two years ago, City workers dumped chicken manure on a homeless camp to stop people from setting up make-shift homes on that spot. The mean-spirited action on the part of the City drew wide media attention, but it was only the most extreme incident in an ongoing pattern of hostility towards homeless people. Tent slashing, pepper spraying, destruction of property, and other tactics of harassment had been employed by the City in an effort to push them out of the area.
The homeless community, many of whom are members of the Drug War Survivors, decided not to run in the face of these tactics, but to fight back. They established a Dignity Village camp in Jubilee Park, and when they were forced out of the park by a legal injunction, some moved to Gladys Ave. next to the train tracks, an encampment that remains there to this day. Rather than hide, they have made the homeless situation in Abbotsford very visible, refusing to disappear before the punitive laws, legal strategies and enforcement tactics used by the City and its police force.
Not only have they refused to run, they have taken the fight to another level. With the help of Pivot Legal Society’s DJ Larkin, the Drug War Survivors have launched a constitutional challenge against the City of Abbotsford. The basic argument is this: when there are not enough shelter spaces available in the city, the municipal laws that prohibit homeless people from setting up a shelter in public spaces to protect themselves from the elements is a violation of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, especially section 7 where the rights to life, liberty and security of the person are protected.
There are a number of aspects of the Abbotsford case that make it particularly important and potentially far-reaching. First of all, the legal challenger in this case is not an individual (which the City was arguing for), but a group of people who have or currently are experiencing homelessness. This means that the collective testimonies from a number of people provide a powerful witness to the realities of being homeless in Abbotsford. In addition, the weight of the case does not ride on a single person whose life is beset by uncertainties and challenges of daily survival. Here there is strength in numbers.
Second, the laws in Abbotsford that prohibit the setting up of shelters cover every kind of public space imaginable. There are park bylaws, streets and traffic bylaws and good neighbour bylaws that make it illegal for a homeless person to set up any protection whatsoever on any piece of open space anywhere in the city. Virtually every square inch of land in the city is covered by these laws, so homeless folks are forced to break the law in order to shelter themselves from harmful environmental impacts to their health.
Third, when the City argues that there are enough shelter spaces available, they are simply counting the number of empty shelter beds and the number of homeless people that could fill them. This court case, however, will challenge the definition of “availability” and argue that shelter spaces may not be appropriate or accessible or safe, given the particular needs that people have. For example, there may be shelter spots open, but they may not suitable or safe for women or for couples. Spaces that are “available” on paper but are not actually accessible to homeless individuals for whatever reason, mean that they are in fact not available at all.
Finally, the Drug War Survivors are not only challenging the City of Abbotsford’s laws against setting up a shelter in public spaces, they are also arguing that the ways in which those laws have been enforced are a violation of the charter rights of homeless people. Slashing tents, using pepper spray, destroying property, spreading chicken manure transgress protections meant to ensure personal safety. So the court case not only takes on the legal policies of the City, it also challenges state actions in enforcing those policies.
The trial begins on June 29, 2015 and is scheduled to run for 6 weeks. The precedent-setting nature of this case has other cities watching what happens in Abbotsford. But maybe more disturbing to those invested in the status quo, it demonstrates what can happen when oppressed people organize together and fight back against the political, social and economic elite that want them to remain invisible and silent, and who run roughshod over their humanity. More than a legal battle, it is a fight for dignity and an affirmation of human value and worth by those most often maligned and hated by dominant society.
You can criminalize our pain
Pulverize our human rights
Dehumanize us with charity
But we are somebody
You can terrorize with hate
Demonize with lies
Lock us up tear us down
Try to drive us out of town
But we are somebody
we are a strong community
From “Song of Hope” by Bud Osborn