Homeless encampment court ruling puts pressure on London to look at shelter system, says lawyer
Ruling may influence how a $25M donation for homeless relief will be spent in London
A London, Ont., lawyer says an Ontario court ruling on a homeless encampment in Waterloo Region will put pressure on London city hall to reconsider how it provides shelter spaces that can accommodate couples or people who are managing addictions or a mental or physical disability.
The case was brought to court by the Regional Municipality of Waterloo, which sought to evict a homeless encampment of 40 to 70 tents in a gravel parking lot owned by the regional government near the Kitchener train station on the grounds the encampment posed a risk to the health and safety of its residents.
On Friday, Ontario Superior Court Justice Michael Valente ruled that the Charter does not allow for eviction when the regional government's shelter system can't accommodate encampment residents' "diverse needs," including couples who do not wish to be separated and people managing addictions and/or mental and physical disabilities.
The ruling could have sweeping implications across the province, especially in London, a city poised to spend a $25 million donation to address its homelessness problem.
Direct benefit could help people now rather than later
"What [the ruling] turned on is the fact there was no accessible shelter alternative for the people who were in the encampment," said Kristie Pagniello, the executive director of Neighbourhood Legal Services of London and Middlesex, a non-profit community legal clinic funded by the province.
"Once a court has said, in a city not far from here, that this was the main issue and these people had nowhere else to go and couldn't be evicted from their encampment, we would expect any kind of new money that's available for housing would consider the issue of temporary shelters and emergency housing and alternatives to encampments."
The City of London is expected to issue a new set of recommendations when it comes to how it deals with the issue of homelessness at the end of February. Pagniello said she hopes one of the recommendations might include a direct benefit, or shelter subsidy in order to help people while new housing or emergency shelter spaces are being built.
"Something portable that helps them access shelter now as opposed to something that may or may not happen in the future."
In response, Kevin Dickins, the deputy city manager of social and health development, told CBC News in an email Monday that the city couldn't comment on the ruling specifically because it is still under review by city hall.
"We think we have struck a good balance regarding encampments," he wrote. "Enforcement practices have been changed to respond to the current crisis, and encampments in the majority of city parks are only moved when there are safety concerns."
Average rent hit $1,664 a month in London in 2022
Dickins said the city works closely with outreach workers in order to work collaboratively with people living in homeless encampments, adding that city hall has long ago abandoned its adversarial approach to dealing with unsheltered people.
"There are no individual 'sides' anymore -- we are all on the side of ending unnecessary suffering and deaths on our streets, and improving overall community health, together."
Still, the city may have its work cut out for it. The ruling comes at a time when shelters across the province, including London's, are stretched to their limits, and the city leads the nation in rent increases, potentially putting more people out in the street.
A recent report from the Canada Mortgage Housing Corporation puts the average rent for a recently vacated two-bedroom apartment at $1,664 a month, up 25.7 per cent from 2021, with the vacancy rate sitting at 1.7 per cent in 2022.
"We're seeing quite a demand in the rental market right now," said Adam Miller, the president of the London St Thomas Association of Realtors.
"We have vacancy rates so low a lot of people are turning to a professional realtor," he said. "The issue right now is with tenants who have been there for a long time and have a great deal. For anyone new, they're certainly going to face an uphill battle."