On the afternoon of Thursday November 3rd, residents of the tent city at 58 W. Hastings trekked over to the BC Supreme Court House to fight for their rights to appropriate shelter. After failing to displace the last dozen or so residents of the camp with coercion, pressure, and offers of warehouse-style shelter, the City of Vancouver filed for a legal injunction to empower police to scatter the camp with force. Against all expectations, the judge refused the City’s application for an immediate injunction and adjourned the hearing to November 14th.
Lacking legal counsel, courtroom defense against the injunction was mounted by Maria Wallstam from the Carnegie Community Action Project (CCAP) and Robert, a Cree man from Saskatchewan who has been staying at the tent city since the summer. Maria said that the case didn’t feel hopeful, largely because of the City’s hubris. “This morning the people from the City came by the tent city like they do every morning, and they seemed like they were getting ready to take it down,” she said. “Now they can’t. Now we have a chance to defend the Charter rights of the homeless people at the 58 tent city.”
Homeless people have Charter rights
In the last year homeless people have discovered some rights in the BC court system. In the fall of 2015 a judge ruled that when cities remove homeless camps from public land without providing appropriate shelter they are violating their residents’ rights under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. In the spring of 2016 the courts adjourned the Province’s request for an injunction hearing to remove Super InTent City from Victoria’s courthouse lawn because the tent city brought relatively more security and safety than displacement and social isolation. The adjournment of the City’s injunction application means that homeless residents of the 58 W. Hastings tent city may have an opportunity to argue that the City of Vancouver is violating their Charter rights.
Robert said that the courts should rule that people can’t be forced to go to shelters. At shelters “you’re treated like a child,” he said. “It’s not right for me and it’s not right for a lot of people.”
Maria said the chance to make this case on November 14th “feels like a little victory. Robert and I were sitting there feeling like we should just leave because it seemed like we couldn’t win. And then the judge ordered an adjournment. The City lawyers were totally unprepared for that.”
The City is responsible for the mess at 58
After their court victory the residents of 58 held a news conference in front of the tent city to respond to the judge’s ruling. Their most urgent message comes in reply to the City’s central case for an injunction – deteriorated health and sanitation conditions at the tent city. “The mess that you see is because people got scared away and they left their things behind,” explained Tazz Cummings, who has been at the tent city since the beginning.
There is something particularly awkward about the mess at 58 W. Hastings; and not in the ways the Mayor’s legal team hopes it will feel awkward. Vancouver’s deputy city manager Paul Mochrie said the injunction is “primarily a function of the deterioration of the conditions on the site,” he said. “If you’ve been by there, you’ve seen that it’s a truly awful place for people to be living.” The implication of the City’s case about the sanitary conditions at 58 are that homeless people have caused this mess and city workers will be able to step in and clean it up when the homeless are out of the way. Their story is that the homeless people are the problem and the impediment to running a clean business-as-usual city, which is based on two indefensible and illogical assumptions:
One: that homeless people are exceptions to business as usual in Vancouver; that they exist outside the regular order of the city. With homelessness at an all time high, it must be obvious that this idea (which is never acceptable) is wrong. Homelessness is just as much a part of Vancouver as opulent wealth and foodie culture. The arrogance of the City’s indifference to the humanity and suffering of homeless people is evident in their legal counsel’s assertion in court that their injunction application is partly motivated by their “worry about the effects [of the camp] on the urban farm” at 58 W. Hastings. And;
Two: that homeless people are the ones who made the city lot dirty. But since the tent city started on the lot in June the most regular request from the camp has been for regular city services. The Mayor’s office has refused them a port-a-potty, refused garbage collection, and refused to supply them with water or electricity. The City is responsible for the mess at 58 because they have denied basic services to this community that has a unique lack of infrastructure other residents take for granted as basic and essential.
Still fighting for basic city services, including homes
The residents of 58 spoke out against the City’s sanitation set-up, which sacrifices the health and welfare of homeless people to make a legal case for the displacement of homeless people. They called for the City to take responsibility for sanitation at 58 W. Hastings, just like they do at other public and city-owned places around Vancouver.
And they called for homes, not shelters, as the only appropriate alternative to the tent city. “We think the court decisions in Victoria this spring set a precedent that the City and Province cannot displace this tent city without providing appropriate shelter. These residents have made it clear that warehouse shelters are not appropriate – they need homes,” said Maria Wallstam. “We are calling on the City and Province to take this opportunity to buy a building and create new low-income social housing for these residents, and to immediately begin building 10,000 units of social housing every year to take all the homeless people in BC off the streets.”