British Columbia

Judge rules homeless camp in downtown Prince George can stay due to lack of shelters in city

B.C. Supreme Court Justice rules there is inadequate shelter to accommodate all residents of city camps.

B.C. Supreme Court rules there are not enough spaces in city to accommodate all residents of city camps

Homeless advocates Ivan Paquette (left) and Amelia Merrick (centre-right) celebrate with homeless camp residents Bell Johnny (centre left) and Jim Santos after a B.C. Supreme Court judge ruled the encampment Johnny and Santos live in will be allowed to stand in Prince George, B.C. (Jason peters)

A B.C. Supreme Court judge has ruled against the city of Prince George in its bid to dismantle a homeless camp in a downtown industrial area.

Honourable Chief Justice Christopher E. Hinkson says the city can remove an encampment established closer to the downtown core, but the second, larger camp will be allowed to stand due to a lack of suitable alternatives for residents to move to.

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

The city was seeking an injunction to dismantle two camps: one on a city lot on George Street in the business district, and another on Lower Patricia Boulevard, on an empty dirt lot between an industrial yard and a steep hill leading to a residential neighbourhood.

RCMP testimony estimated approximately 80 occupants were in both camps, with the majority living in Lower Patricia.

A camp along George Street in downtown Prince George can be dismantled in seven days. The judge ruled people living there should be allowed to move to a larger camp on Lower Patricia Blvd. (Andrew Kurjata/CBC)

The city relied heavily on RCMP testimony in its application, as well as that of bylaw services manager Charlotte Davis. Justice Hinkson described much of their testimony as "hearsay" and therefore unreliable.

For example, while RCMP testified they were responding to complaints from people living near the homeless camps, Hinkson said they were unable to prove that the people engaged in criminal behaviour downtown were, indeed, residents of the camp or that the camp was responsible for the behaviour.

Likewise, he said testimony that homeless residents were responsible for stolen property and vandalism at nearby properties was "hearsay."

He did accept testimony that people lighting fires posed a risk, but also noted that the risk would remain so long as the residents remained unhoused.

Inadequate shelter space available

This led to the primary issue in the ruling: the question of whether there is adequate shelter available in Prince George so that everyone living in the camps could move indoors.

On this front, several members of the camp presented evidence that they had tried to find alternate shelter spaces and were unable to do so.

Hinkson accepted this evidence, writing "substance use disorders, lack of identification, the inability to meet application requirements, and the lack of bank accounts or records have prevented at least some of the homeless to secure alternate housing in downtown Prince George."

He also ruled that existing shelter spaces are inaccessible by people living with mental health disorders and addiction.

There are an estimated 50 tents in the encampments on city lots in downtown Prince George, according to RCMP testimony. (Andrew Kurjata/CBC)

"It is apparent that very few of the emergency shelter beds are low barrier, and it appears that many of the homeless persons in the city are ineligible to stay in at least some of the shelters," he wrote.

"While the city contends that the availability of 81 shelter beds in the city is sufficient to house the encampment occupants, I am not satisfied that these shelter spaces are in fact accessible to all of the occupants of the encampments."

Hinkson did not accept testimony from the city about a recently-announced shelter being opened, as its creation came after it applied for the injunction.

City responds

The city released a statement late Friday saying it is reviewing the decision and will "continue to work closely with B.C. Housing to ensure the availability of shelter or housing to transition [camp] occupants ... before the cold weather sets in."

It also said it intends to dismantle the George Street camp in seven days, as is allowed by the ruling.

The B.C. Assembly of First Nations also responded to the decision, with chief Terry Teegee saying he "applauds" the ruling.

"The City claimed that people had a place to go, which was clearly false. Chief Justice Hinkson saw through their arguments, and ruled that the City could not force people out of their tents when they had no other options," Teegee said.

Teegee testified in the proceedings that approximately 80 percent of homeless people in Prince George are Indigenous and said that rather than work with First Nations to solve the problem, recent actions have been targeting them instead.

He pointed to the passing of a so-called "Safer Streets" bylaw that has been criticized for criminalizing behaviour, including asking for money after dark or sleeping near doorways.

"Today's decision should give the City pause, and make them stop punishing our society's most vulnerable," he said.

Read the full ruling below:

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Andrew Kurjata

CBC Prince George | @akurjata

Andrew Kurjata is an award-winning journalist covering Northern British Columbia for CBC Radio and cbc.ca, situated in unceded Lheidli T'enneh territory in Prince George. You can email him at andrew.kurjata@cbc.ca. You can also send encrypted messages using Signal or iMessage to 250.552.2058.

now