British Columbia

City of Prince George violated court order in destroying homeless people's belongings, judge rules

The city of Prince George "inflicted serious harm on vulnerable people" when it destroyed shelters and belongings in a homeless camp that was meant to be protected by a court ruling, a B.C. Supreme Court justice has ruled.

City 'inflicted serious harm on vulnerable people' who can seek compensation, decision states

A tent in a homeless camp in Prince George, B.C., pictured after a B.C. Supreme Court ruling prevented the city from shutting down an encampment along Patricia Boulevard due to a lack of suitable housing options elsewhere. It was among those destroyed by the city of Nov. 18, 2021, an action a new court ruling says was in violation of the previous order. (Amelia Merrick/Together We Stand)

The City of Prince George "inflicted serious harm on vulnerable people" and violated a court order when it destroyed shelters and belongings in a homeless camp, a B.C. Supreme Court justice has ruled.

It is the second time the city has lost a legal bid to have the camp, known by many in the community as "Moccasin Flats," removed from along Patricia Boulevard, on an empty city lot between industrial businesses and a hill leading up to a residential neighbourhood.

The city previous lost a bid to have the camp removed in Oct. 2021 when Chief Justice Christopher E. Hinkson found there was not adequate shelter or affordable housing spaces in the community to justify forcing people to leave the camp.

Despite this, the city used heavy machinery to destroys several structures in the camp in November, arguing they had been abandoned by residents who had found shelter elsewhere. 

It also filed a new application to have the camp removed altogether, arguing enough new shelter spaces had been opened in the intervening months that the camp was no longer needed.

But affidavits filed by lawyers Darlene Kavka and Melanie Begalka, who represented camp residents in both cases, told a different story.

Personal ID and loved ones remains destroyed, camp residents say

Contrary to the city's claim that only two people were living in the camp in December, Kavka and Begalka presented signed testimony from more than a dozen other people who said they were still living in the camp on and off.

They also submitted signed affidavits from multiple people who said the city had destroyed their shelters and personal belongings.

Among the items people said they lost were the remains of loved ones, photographs and personal identification.

In his ruling, Justice Simon R. Coval accepted the city's argument that the camp is an "intrusion" on people who live and work in the neighbourhood and that it poses a fire risk, one of the reasons the city argued it had to demolish some structures.

But he agreed with the previous ruling from Hinkson who argued these problems are not the fault of the camp itself, but a byproduct of homelessness and the lack of other spaces for people to live. He also agreed that based on the evidence submitted there is still not enough appropriate housing available to accommodate camp residents, even with the addition of new shelter spaces in recent months.

A sign in a homeless camp in Prince George aimed at preventing demolition after the city destroyed several other structures in November. (Andrew Kurjata/CBC)

More crucially, Coval said that the city was in violation of a court ruling protecting the camp when it made the decision to send in heavy machinery to tear down structures without first getting permission from the courts to do so.

"Under the [previous] order, the Lower Patricia encampment was permitted to stay unless and until the city demonstrated available and accessible housing and daytime facilities for its occupants," Coval wrote in his judgment.

"The city breached [this order] by dismantling much of the encampment without such housing or daytime facilities... This breach inflicted serious harm on vulnerable people."

As a result, the city's application to have the camp removed has been dismissed with costs and people who had their belongings destroyed could seek compensation from the city.

In a statement posted to its website the city says it is reviewing the ruling and will not be providing further comment.

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 to 250.552.2058.

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