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Analysis finds ‘alarming’ issues with some injunctions against B.C. homeless encampments

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Metro Vancouver homelessness at record level
WATCH: It's a shocking number -- close to 5,000 people in Metro Vancouver say they are homeless. That's a record level, according to the latest survey. Catherine Urquhart has more on what groups are seeing the largest increase - and what government is promising to do – Oct 5, 2023

New analysis from the University of British Columbia has identified “alarming” issues with the way B.C.’s courts have handled a number requests for injunctions against homeless encampments on public land.

Stepan Wood, a professor in the Peter A. Allard School of Law and the Canada Research Chair in Law, Society and Sustainability, analyzed 24 injunction decisions in the province between 2000 and 2022. He describes his findings as “disturbing” in a report released this month called “Rush to Judgement.”

“We already knew that the courts were pretty eager to grant injunctions against homeless encampments when governments ask for them, but we didn’t really have a clear picture of exactly how eager,” Wood told Global News.

“The key finding was that the picture is actually even worse for homeless encampment residents than we thought.”

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According to Wood, 75 per cent of government requests for injunctions were granted in the studied timeframe. That includes a 25-per-cent approval rate for final injunctions — granted after the government has proven its case — and a success rate of 85 per cent for interlocutory injunctions, which are temporary orders issued before the government has proven its case.

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“Striking, because injunctions are supposed to be drastic and extraordinary remedies when no other remedy will work,” he explained.

“Eight-five per cent of the time, the courts are granting injunctions to evict homeless encampments even before the government has proved the legal claims that it has against them.”

The approval of just one of four final injunctions between 2000 and 2022 suggests “courts are more likely to rule in favour of homeless encampment residents when the issues and evidence are developed and explored carefully,” the report states.

It also claims that some decisions in the interlocutory cases applied a “relaxed legal test that minimizes or ignores the issues of irreparable harm and balance of convenience.”

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There were 20 interlocutory injunction decisions in the the past 22 years.

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Last spring, the City of Vancouver moved to evict those living in an encampment on Hastings Street in the Downtown Eastside, clearing out dozens of tents and thousands of pounds of personal belongings. The fire chief had ordered the removal, citing health and safety issues — including fire risk — in the neighbourhood.

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Rich Christian, who is currently unhoused in the Downtown Eastside, said he believes homelessness will get worse in the coming months.

“You gotta help with the housing somehow, right? I’ve had a tough time getting into it. I’ve been on the waitlist for BC Housing for like two years, and after that it’s another waiting list to find a place opening. There’s not much around,” he said.

“The places that aren’t as occupied as the others — it’s a bad living environment.”

On the topic of injunctions, Christian said he believes they could be justified, depending on the reasons provided.

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Woods’ report concludes that until governments and societies commit to “effective implementation” of the right to housing, a robust social safety net and genuine reconciliation with Indigenous Peoples, encampments will “persist and multiply.”

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Chatting about the report on Thursday, Premier David Eby said the B.C. government is “struggling with a moving target from the courts” when it comes to the circumstances around which a municipality can remove an encampment and what alternative “adequate shelter” means in that context.

“The Crab Park encampment is a good example of that, where the park board went to court to try to clear the encampment, to get an injunction and they weren’t able to get that injunction,” Eby said.

“We’ve been working with local governments to be able to define that, so that we can set a standard for the province, which on the one hand could be seen as a right to shelter, which has already been recognized by the courts, and on the other hand, from the government perspective as the standard that we need to hit to get people inside.”

In 2022, the B.C. Supreme Court rejected the Vancouver Park Board’s injunction request to clear out a portion of CRAB Park and prevent people from sheltering there in the daytime, finding that the board had failed to prove suitable shelter was available elsewhere.

“You can’t live in a right to shelter, you actually need the shelter, so that’s why our government is focused on building the housing that people need across the province,” Eby added.

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Homeless advocates call for more shelter space in Burnaby

The premier has previously said encampments are not safe or a solution to the housing crisis.

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In April, Eby and Kahlon announced a four-pillar plan aimed at cracking down on soaring real estate prices, increasing construction and creating more rental units.

Highlights of the ‘Homes for People’ project include legislation that allows up to four units on a single traditional housing lot, a tax on the proceeds of house-flipping, and a forgivable loan of 50 per cent of the cost of basement suite renovations, up to a maximum of $40,000 over five years, if the secondary suites are rented at below-market rate for at least five years.

Landon Hoyt, executive director of the Hastings Crossing Business Improvement Association, said Vancouver in particular needs more shelter spaces.

“We’re very supportive of recognizing encampments as a part of the housing spectrum, so when there’s not enough housing available, when there’s not enough of the right kind of housing available, we’re seeing people sleeping on the streets and gathering in places like Crab Park,” he explained.

“There’s a number of proposals and solutions out there, whether it be tiny homes, or simply building additional housing that’s accessible, has the right kinds of support services and wraparound services around them.”

Hoyt said such solutions should be examined and enacted before encampments are cleared out, especially in the winter. In the absence of secure housing, some people feel safer in the communities they find through encampments, he added.

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