For 6 weeks this past summer, the Abbotsford chapter of the BC/Yukon Drug WaSurvivors and its team of lawyers have been in court. They are challenging the City of Abbotsford’s policies and treatment of homeless people, arguing that they violate the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
Since the plaintiff in this case is a group of people who have been homeless or are currently homeless in Abbotsford, their collective testimony offers a powerful witness to the failure of political institutions, health organizations, and social agencies to provide necessary resources and supports. The court heard accounts of how homeless people experienced exclusion, harassment, hostility, and discrimination as they struggled to survive within a system of inadequate and inaccessible housing and shelter options.
One witness described being discharged from the hospital at 4:30 am after receiving treatment for a head injury. She walked downtown, dizzy, sick to her stomach and disoriented. She ended up spending the night in a doorway to a business.
Another person told the court how he tried to find shelter in the drunk-tank on cold and wet nights but on more than a few occasions was turned away because he wasn’t drunk enough. So he went away and got a bottle, then drank it in front of the camera until they let him in. He said this option was “better than freezing to death.”
Testimonies from homeless individuals also revealed the resilience and mutual care that exists in many homeless camps as people form bonds of support and safety with one another. One witness spoke of lying on a pad near the railway tracks in the pouring rain sick as a dog when another homeless person came along and took care of him. Another man collected extra supplies to distribute to those in need and would give up his tent so others could get the sleep they so badly needed.
The Closing Argument from the lawyers for the Drug War Survivors runs nearly 300 pages and provides a clear picture of the structural violence endured by low-income, homeless individuals in Abbotsford. It reveals the numerous ways their suffering is amplified, not alleviated, by the network of political and social institutions that hem them in rather than uphold their dignity.
The judge won’t make his ruling in this case until late November. The City of Abbotsford has reason to be worried about the outcome, and no doubt other cities will be watching carefully to see if their policies uphold or trample the rights of homeless people.