Another Cold Christmas in Abbotsford

One year ago dozens of people were evicted from their homes in Abbotsford’s Jubilee Park.

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Using the law as a catalyst for positive social change, Pivot Legal Society works to improve the lives of marginalized communities.

In December 2013 the city successfully applied for an injunction to ban homeless people from living in the park. In granting the injunction, the court found that the people being evicted were a “very marginalized faction of our society” whose situations were “particularly grim.”

Still, just four days before Christmas, their homes were dismantled and they were unceremoniously removed from the park, some of them in handcuffs, others fleeing under the stress of the eviction. And so began a yearlong pattern of evictions and disheartening moves for this vulnerable and increasingly displaced group of people.

Facing barriers to shelter, not to mention a lack of available shelter space in the city (Abbotsford has approximately four times fewer shelter beds per capita than the rest of the province), many of the Jubilee Park residents set up camp along Gladys Avenue. There they joined others who have lived on the roadside of Gladys Avenue for years as their last refuge and the place they called home. Despite being exposed to traffic, the elements, and unsanitary living conditions, the residents were at least near the support services they needed to survive.

Throughout the summer, however, they were moved again, from Gladys, from other railway corridors, from the woods and parks. People received trespassing warnings from BC Hydro, and were told to move along by the City, rail companies, and other private property owners before being outright evicted. Again.

Confronted with another wet and cold winter living outdoors in dangerous conditions, those camping on Gladys Avenue argued in court earlier this month that the injunction should be dissolved in order for them to seek a safer place to sleep in Jubilee Park. The park was not the best option, but it at least represents a safer one.

Their request was denied.

In reconsidering whether the injunction should now be vacated, Mr. Justice James Williams found that people are currently living in worse, more cluttered, poorly maintained circumstances, but that those conditions are not a “great deal” worse than their previous camp in Jubilee Park.

“It is clear that there is a hard-core faction of people who are homeless, whose situations are particularly difficult to address, because of factors such as mental health and substance abuse,” Mr. Justice Williams wrote in his decision. “These are persons whose difficulties make the matter of finding acceptable shelter and other fundamental services profoundly challenging.”

The system has failed those living on Gladys Avenue and many others. When we are left to argue about whether the circumstances in which we force our homeless citizens to live are deplorable “enough” to warrant action, it is clear that we have failed.

Many of those living along Gladys Avenue are members of the BC/Yukon Association of Drug War Survivors (DWS). In the face of instability and constant displacement, they are mounting a challenge to Abbotsford’s bylaws prohibiting anyone from being present in any park overnight, from erecting a basic survival structure, or even sleeping in a car.

In June, homeless people in Abbotsford will have their day in court. If they’re successful, it will result in the elimination of these bylaws and recognize access to safe shelters as a basic human right. The outcome could change the lives of homeless people across the country.

Until then, they face another winter in the wind and cold, struggling every day to find dry clothing, a warm place to sleep and relying on the relative safety they find within their own small community.