The B.C. Supreme Court has struck down a Victoria bylaw aimed at preventing homeless people from setting up tents and sleeping in city parks.
The court ruled Tuesday the bylaw deprives the homeless of life, liberty and security in violation of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
'I'm expecting to sleep down in the mayor's grove tonight and … I don't think I'm going to take down my tent.' — David Arthur Johnston, Victoria homeless activist
Irene Faulkner, a lawyer for the group that challenged the law, said the judge decided a sleeping bag or blanket isn't enough to protect people from the elements when sleeping outside in Victoria or anywhere on the West Coast.
Faulkner said the ruling also says that sleeping in a tent or under another structure is not a public safety issue but rather a basic human dignity.
In her ruling, Justice Carol Ross found that due to insufficient capacity in Victoria's shelters, hundreds of homeless people have no choice but to sleep outside.
'How are our families and children …supposed to get full enjoyment from parks when the homeless are given leave to camp in the playground?' — Bruce Carter, Victoria Chamber of Commerce
Ross said Victoria's bylaw prevented the homeless from protecting themselves from the elements, something that could lead to potentially fatal health risks.
Three years ago, Victoria served notice to people sleeping in Cridge Park that they had to leave.
In June, Victoria police arrested David Arthur Johnston for violating the bylaw but said he may have deliberately staged his own arrest as part of a protest against the law.
Johnston, 36, said after Tuesday's ruling that he is "giddy and can't believe the decision."
"I'm expecting to sleep down in the mayor's grove tonight and when I wake up in the morning I don't think I'm going to take down my tent," he said.
Johnston received the tent earlier Tuesday from members of the city's End Homelessness Committee.
About a dozen people celebrated Johnston's victory with him near the courthouse, many taking turns reading the ruling he was holding.
Gary Kinser, a member of the homelessness committee, described the court win as a "David versus Goliath case."
"I feel ecstatic," he said.
Victoria business group criticizes ruling
However, the Victoria Chamber of Commerce panned the ruling.
Chief executive Bruce Carter said the community deserves "a more measured approach that puts more emphasis on the public interest."
"How are our families and children, who pay taxes to maintain parks, supposed to get full enjoyment from parks when the homeless are given leave to camp in the playground?" Carter said in a statement.
He said the chamber has been advocating for years for increased services for the homeless and has been involved in the Coalition to End Homelessness.
"Let's be clear," Carter said. "The problems in our community are directly related to mental health and addictions and the lack of services to meet the needs in our community."
He said it's time for the province and the Vancouver Island Health Authority to make the necessary health-care services available and for the federal government to increase funding for housing to meet the desperate needs in the community.
Grace Pastine, a spokeswoman for the B.C. Civil Liberties Association, which had intervener status in the case, hailed the ruling. "This decision recognizes that telling homeless people who have nowhere else to go that they can sleep outside but they can't protect themselves from the elements places the homeless in an impossible situation."