Tent city at Victoria courthouse can stay for now, judge rules

The tent city on the lawn of the Victoria courthouse isn’t going anywhere any time soon.

B.C. Supreme Court Chief Justice Christopher Hinkson has refused a request from the province to issue an injunction ordering the encampment, which began to grow last November, to be dismantled.

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“If I were to issue the injunction at this point, I am concerned that the problems would simply migrate to other areas in the City of Victoria,” Hinkson said in his 58-page decision, released Tuesday.

“An injunction at this juncture may well cause greater disruption to the public and greater expense to the City of Victoria than the disruption and expense presently endured by the province.

“There is at least an overlap between the provincial taxpayers and the taxpayers in the City of Victoria, and I am not prepared to displace one’s expenses to impose them on the other,” he said.

“Ultimately, in determining whether or not to grant an interim injunction at this time, I find that the balance of convenience is overwhelmingly in favour of the defendants, who simply have nowhere to move to.”

The provincial government had argued it needed the 100 or so campers moved off the site because of hazards created by campfires, lack of adequate facilities, and drug use and trafficking on the site.

Hinkson said he’s not convinced that many of the problems alleged by the province “are the unique result of the existence of the encampment, and are not simply part of the reality of homelessness.”

Tent city residents and their supporters in the camp erupted in cheers when told of the decision.

“Tent city’s my home, man, and this is where I belong. I’m with my family,” said Wolf Montey, who has been staying at the tent city off and on — most recently for about a month.

“This means [the most vulnerable] are not going to be chased into the dark corners or down in the park where they are at risk. We’re going to be here, together, as a community keeping each other safe,” said Joseph Reville, who had been staying at the camp but is now living at the Choices shelter in the Youth Custody Centre in View Royal.

The province has asked for a permanent injunction against camping on the courthouse property that is set to be heard Sept. 7.

Hinkson said if there is proof the situation at the camp is deteriorating, the province is free to renew its application for an injunction before that date.

Victoria Mayor Lisa Helps said with the court ruling that the tent city can stay, it’s up to the province to manage the site.

“It’s the province’s land. The province has lots of experience managing campsites,” Helps said.

Citizens’ Services Minister Amrik Virk said the province will continue to look at housing options as it waits for the permanent injunction application to be heard.

Virk said B.C. Housing has already found more than 150 housing options for campers. “B.C. Housing is going to continue that work with each and every one of those [people] that are there for bona fide housing needs.”

The government will also work with Victoria police to make sure that any concerns are mitigated, Virk said.

David Eby, the NDP’s spokesman on housing issues, said nobody wins in the court decision.

“This is a loss for the neighbours. It’s a loss for the community, and it’s a loss for the campers, because key to the court’s decision is that there are more homeless in Victoria than available beds and the situation will get worse when the cold, wet weather beds close for the season.”

Eby said the decision is a “direct consequence” of the government not providing adequate housing for homeless people in Victoria.

“It is the third judicial decision that I’m aware of that affirms the right — the so-called right — of people to sleep outside because there’s nowhere else for them to go,” he said, calling it an “empty right” that compromises the well-being of campers.

“This tent city is a example of what will be happening in cities across British Columbia if this government doesn’t get its act together, and the people who camp in them will be protected by the courts from being dispersed,” he said, pointing to a new tent city that has sprung up on the lawn at city hall in Campbell River.

“Campbell River’s a great example of where we’re going, unfortunately, under this government’s housing policy.”

Tent-city neighbour Stephen Hammond, organizer of the group Mad As Hell, said the only bright spot in the ruling was that the judge said the province could seek another injunction if the situation deteriorated further.

Mad As Hell’s planned meeting for Thursday night at the Harbour Towers Hotel was cancelled by the hotel after it received a large number of phone and email threats.

Hammond was still searching for an alternate venue Tuesday, but suspected the meeting would have to be postponed.

bcleverley@timescolonist.com

lkines@timescolonist.com

— With a file from Richard Watts

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