British Columbia

B.C. Supreme Court considers injunction against Moccasin Flats encampment

The City of Prince George filed an application to the B.C. Supreme Court for an injunction to remove 'tent cities' from city property, just the latest in a string of similar injunctions granted to municipalities.

Lawyers for the city argue there are alternatives available. Residents say they have nowhere to go.

A sign reading 'Please No Scumbags' marks the entrance to a homeless encampment in Prince George, B.C. (Andrew Kurjata/CBC)

The B.C. Supreme Court heard arguments for and against an injunction that would allow the City of Prince George to dismantle the homeless encampments, Moccasin Flats and the Splits.

The application was filed in late August and sparked outrage from homeless advocates, who said the City is criminalizing homelessness.

But the City said the intent is to relocate the unhoused to suitable shelter beds before temperatures start to drop, and that a civil injunction is needed to clear the camps in an orderly fashion.

Shelter availability

At the heart of the argument against the injunction is that there is nowhere else for unhoused people to go.

Troy DeSouza, lawyer for the City of Prince George, put forward an affidavit by Charlotte Peters, manager of Bylaw Services, stating that shelter beds are available on any given night.

But Darlene Kavka, who represents residents of Moccasin Flats and the Splits, said that while beds may be empty, that does not mean they are available to everyone. She cited barriers to accessing shelter spaces, including having a substance use disorder, mental health crisis, or complex trauma. 

Daniel Roy was homeless in Prince George for 15 years, dealing with addiction. He said that in his experience, shelters "do not treat their residents very well. There's a lot of favouritism and once you're banned, you're banned."

After five years in recovery, Daniel Roy is an advocate for the homeless. He spent 15 years on the streets of Prince George. (Daniel Roy)

Chief Justice Christopher E. Hinkson agreed, calling addiction a disease and "not a moral failure."

"It is unreasonable to ask them to forget their addictions" in order to access shelters, he added.

Kavka also questioned the number and availability of beds — there is no up-to-date information on the number of unhoused people in Prince George for the years 2020 or 2021. 

Trespassing and bylaws

"The key issue is, are they entitled to be there?" said DeSouza while presenting his argument.

The Splits on George Street, located across from the courthouse, is zoned C1, which is classified for commercial use. Moccasin Flats on Lower Patricia Boulevard is zoned P1, designated for parks and recreation. In both cases, camping is prohibited by zoning laws. 

The residents did not refute that they are on city property, or that they are trespassing. Kavka said that exceptional circumstances have put them in breach of these bylaws.

She argued that both lots were vacant and unused, and that the injunction was impossible for unhoused people to comply with, as anywhere they sleep will put them in breach of the Safe Streets bylaw. 

Passed by City Council on Aug. 30, the bylaw states that "no person may sit, lie, solicit or physically approach in a manner that causes an Obstruction on a Street or Roadway." That includes sidewalks, doorways, ditches, shoulders, and a "place or way which the public is ordinarily entitled or permitted to use."

An eviction notice issued to people living at 231-233 George Street in Prince George, B.C., says anyone who doesn't leave by June 25, 2021 could be arrested by a Peace Officer. (Andrew Kurjata/CBC)

Hinkson said that while the new Safe Streets bylaw was not up for debate in this case, it did play a role in the arguments.

Procedural and jurisdictional concerns

Hinkson began proceedings with questions about the role of the B.C. Supreme Court in doing the work of the RCMP and government. 

He brought up the ruling by B.C. Supreme Court Justice Douglas Thompson in late September denying an application to extend an injunction against old-growth logging blockades at Fairy Creek.

Hinkson pointed out that the RCMP are already empowered to enforce the law and do not require a court injunction to do so.

DeSouza argued that a court injunction was needed to ensure a tool for compliance was available and to clarify the letter of the law. 

Kavka reminded the court that the encampments at Moccasin Flats and the Splits are not protests or demonstrations. She also put forward that homelessness is a social issue, not a legal one.

Sworn affidavits, she added, are not sufficient to evaluate the problem. For example, whether shelter beds are in fact available or if crime is more prevalent are not well understood through testimony. 

Excluded affidavits

Lawyers for the city were prevented from submitting late affidavits — two from Bylaw Services manager Charlotte Peters and one from Michael Kellett, senior communications officer for the city. 

DeSouza said the city has been working with B.C. Housing to come up with solutions to Prince George's housing crisis, but was unable to speak to the most recent announcement made on Monday: 44 rooms at the Knights Inn Motel in downtown Prince George will be turned into supportive housing, administered by the Prince George Native Friendship Centre (PGNFC).

PGNFC Executive Director Barb Ward-Burkitt says the initiative is intended for residents of the encampments, an estimated 80 per cent of whom are Indigenous. 

Those beds are expected to become available early November, according to B.C. Housing. 

Hinkson adjourned to consider the arguments outlined by the two sides, and said he will make a decision in a few weeks.