VANCOUVER – A B.C. Supreme Court judge is considering the fate of a homeless camp set up on a piece of land owned by the City of Vancouver on the east side of downtown.
Lawyers for the city have asked the court for an injunction to evict the remaining campers, arguing that the site presents serious health and safety concerns.
But lawyers for the Pivot Legal Society, which is representing residents of the camp, argue shelters in the city are full and the camp provides residents a stable place to live where they can feel safe.
The tent city sprouted up last summer and late last month city staff began moving residents into a nearby shelter, but about 17 people stayed.
Resident Stacey Dubois said outside of court that he has lived at the site since “day one” and doesn’t want to leave.
“We do find it’s a lot safer where we are,” he said. “We do look after one another. And we do have a lot of services around us.”
Several similar camps have popped up around the province as the cost of housing continues to climb. A tent city was erected on the courthouse lawn in Victoria in November 2015, and more than 100 people lived there before the court ordered it dismantled this summer.
Robert Cooper, a lawyer with Pivot, said in court Monday that the Vancouver camp is different than the one in Victoria because it is on an empty lot, not an area intended to be a public gathering place.
Cooper noted the site is close to services designed to help homeless people, and said that providing portable toilets and regular garbage removal would help mitigate some of the city’s health and safety concerns.
City lawyer Iain Dixon replied that the land is not suitable for a homeless camp.
“The city doesn’t have an obligation to provide garbage service and other things to a site that it doesn’t believe should be there,” he told the court.
Outside of court, Pivot lawyer D. J. Larkin said the city does have an obligation to keep residents safe and closing the camp would force people onto the streets because Vancouver’s shelters are full.
“Being homeless is dangerous, it’s bad for your health, it decreases your lifespan,” she said. “And the city doesn’t have safe, accessible housing that’s available to people on offer as an alternative.”
The city has previously said that since the camp started, more than 65 calls have been made to police, an ambulance has been requested about 20 times, and the fire chief has twice issued orders for campers to remove hazardous material.
The city has also said that it plans to build a social housing project with about 250 units and an integrated health centre at the site of the camp, though construction is not expected to begin for four or five years.
When the city is ready to build, residents of the encampment won’t stand in the way, Larkin said.
“Certainly no one at that site would stand in the way of the city’s ability to develop housing,” she said. “But that means they’ll need to clear the site then. That’s not now. Winter is coming. It’s wet, it’s cold and the shelters are full. The city has an obligation to keep people safe right now.”
Justice Loryl Russell has reserved a ruling in the case, saying she will hand down her decision by the end of the week.