Last Friday, the Chief Justice of the B.C. Supreme Court heard the City of Abbotsford argue that our Pivot-led lawsuit seeking to have access to safe shelter recognized as a basic human right should not go to trial.
The City of Abbotsford is seeking to strike down the lawsuit brought forward by the BC/Yukon Association of Drug War Survivors (DWS) on behalf of the city’s homeless population. They’ve argued that DWS cannot represent the interests of homeless people in Abbotsford—even though many of its members are homeless in Abbotsford.
We were there, along with our fantastic co-counsel team, to defend against the city’s application. Members of the DWS—who got up at 5am to make it to court in time—came to show the court that if this lawsuit gets thrown out, it will be their voices that are silenced.
It is so important that this case goes to trial. People living on our streets have the least access to the justice system to uphold their basic rights. They’re also at the greatest risk of being abused by a system that controls their ability to seek out the necessities of life in public spaces.
The list of abuses and devastating setbacks suffered by the homeless people in Abbotsford is appalling. Last summer, city staffers admitted to dumping chicken manure to deter homeless people from living outside. Later, just five days before Christmas, the city oversaw the dismantling of tents and structures in Jubilee Park, sending people to the streets without safe shelter. And earlier this year the mayor and city council voted against the development of a low-barrier housing project for which the province has offered millions of dollars to fund, citing concern from business owners that it would attract homeless people into their downtown.
I wish I could write that the City of Abbotsford is some sort of exception, that the marginalization and discrimination experienced there are somehow unique. They are not.
While the City of Abbotsford’s approach to housing is especially egregious, bylaws prohibiting homeless people from sleeping in safe spaces exist all over the country. Instead of taking action to solve homelessness and protect all Canadians, our governments are using laws to push people into alleys and under bridges, putting them in harm’s way and making their lives incredibly unsafe.
These municipal bylaws are being used to police homelessness because, shamefully, Canada is the only G8 country without a national housing plan. Housing is a national concern—in fact, the state of housing rights in Canada has long been identified as a crisis according to the United Nations.
While senior levels of government fail to act, it is municipalities that are left on the frontline to deal with people on their streets. Without a plan to protect our most vulnerable people, and absent guidance from senior levels of government, we’re leaving it to under-resourced municipalities to take action. This has led to inconsistency in the way that marginalized people are treated across the country.
While some municipal authorities see homeless people as community members in need of respect and support, most see them as a public space “issue” to be policed, displaced, and rendered invisible. Rather than being treated with dignity and respect, many face discrimination in jurisdictions that are failing to recognize housing as a human rights issue.
This is not the way forward for a country as prosperous and seemingly progressive as Canada.
The case against the City of Abbotsford is a unique opportunity for the courts, and for all Canadians, to acknowledge the basic dignity and rights of the homeless.
It’s important to note that striking down the bylaws that make life more dangerous for homeless people in Abbotsford will not give them a home. But it will give them the freedom to take the necessary actions to save their own lives—allowing people the freedom to shelter themselves, to rest, to eat, to be healthy.
And so we wait for a decision to find out if Abbotsford’s homeless people will be heard in court. Until that day comes, let’s call on our cities to stop making life more dangerous and oppressive for people on the streets and demand that our federal government takes action to provide housing for those most in need.
By DJ Larkin, Pivot Housing lawyer