The B.C. Supreme Court’s refusal to order the removal of the tent city on the courthouse lawn is not a victory for anyone, but the process has provided a useful airing of perspectives from both sides. Perhaps it can lead to a collaborative effort to reach reasonable and long-term solutions.
Chief Justice Christopher Hinkson refused a request for an interim order to dismantle the encampment, saying such an order would not solve problems, but would move them from one place to another.
The province asked for a permanent injunction against camping on the courthouse property; that application will be heard Sept. 7. In the meantime, the court was asked for an interim injunction on the grounds that the problems caused by the encampment are urgent and need immediate attention.
Hinkson acknowledged the province’s concerns, but said in his written decision: “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.”
A shantytown in Victoria’s downtown core is not a good thing. The courthouse lawn was not designed and is not equipped to accommodate makeshift housing. The tent city’s continued presence could foster the attitude that anyone can camp on any piece of public property whenever they want.
And the ruling raises fears — not unreasonably — that a small group of people are being encouraged to ignore laws and evade personal responsibility and self-reliance.
But a reading of Hinkson’s written decision is enlightening — and encouraging. The affidavits, testimonies and arguments rendered in his courtroom show that the people living in the encampment are real human beings, with real fears, with real needs. These are indeed vulnerable people, and in the tent city, many have found security and community they have not experienced in years, if ever.
A huge factor is the opportunity to sleep in safety and relative comfort. A 21-year-old woman who had been homeless for two years said in her affidavit that finding a safe place to sleep at night had been a challenge.
“Typically, I would be very sleep-deprived, as are most people I know who live on the streets,” she said. “This had a huge effect on my ability to function and take care of myself.
“It has been very humanizing for me to stay at tent city. I am way less stressed out, am using drugs less and have a safe home place with a community of people around to watch out for me.”
Other tent-city residents told of being in better physical, mental and emotional health because of the stable, comfortable environment and a supportive community.
Through these testimonies and those of agencies and people who support the encampment’s residents, a picture emerges of a community that, although not without serious problems, is working together for mutual support and encouragement.
Can this synergy be preserved? Can this community continue to thrive so that its members can work together to make life better, in a location that does not disrupt the lives of others?
The neighbours who are “mad as hell” about the tent city are not heartless, selfish individuals. They have worked hard for their homes, and to suggest that they must solve a problem they didn’t create is unjust. Their concerns for health, safety and security are valid. They did not plan to live next to a tent city, nor should they be forced to.
But Hinkson was right not to order the encampment swept away. The province is correct — the tent city should go, but the aim should not be to dismantle it, but to find it a better home.