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Les Leyne: Attempt at 'clarity and guidance' on shelters fails on both counts

What started as a legal definition setting a province-wide standard for dealing with homeless encampments has evolved into an embarrassing mess
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Homeless tent on the boulevard on the 800 block of Pandora Avenue last week. DARREN STONE, TIMES COLONIST

It started three weeks ago as a relatively innocuous little legal definition that would set a province-wide standard for dealing with homeless encampments.

But by last week, it had evolved into an embarrassing mess. Local governments were declaring the change unworkable and the premier and housing minister were saying different things.

Officials trying to remove encampments and people intent on defending the rights of campers were united in criticizing the change.

The arguments erupted after the government tried to clarify for municipalities and the courts how it wants injunctions against encampments of homeless people to work.

In six brief lines, it set criteria for where the homeless could be expected to go when injunctions shutting down sidewalk and park encampments are under consideration.

The new standard is that alternative shelter must be “reasonably available,” be staffed and include a bed for overnight stays, a bathroom and one meal a day.

Attorney General Niki Sharma introduced it, saying municipalities are increasingly using injunctions and the bill would answer the “important question” of where the homeless would go.

Her key point was that the “description of shelter is a minimum standard met by all provincially-funded shelters …”

She said most of them go above and beyond that minimum, with health, social and cultural supports as well.

That left the impression that it was a reasonable expectation that could be ticked off as injunction applications move through the courts. But when the Union of B.C. Municipalities and its lawyers took a closer, a different picture emerged.

The UBCM presented a number of concerns to Housing Minister Ravi Kahlon in conversations after the bill was introduced, and asked that the bill be suspended.

Kahlon declined, so they went public later with some serious objections. The legal advice to the municipal leaders is that the bill limits their ability to deal with the problems, and could conceivably leave them powerless to do much of anything.

“It is highly unlikely that any community has sufficient shelter space for all unhoused persons, so there is reason to believe it would be practically impossible for local governments … to meet the test,” it said.

An unintended consequence would be that homeless people could camp virtually anywhere, knowing no injunction is possible, said the UBCM.

Since homeless shelters are a provincial responsibility, local governments would have to get the data to make their case for injunctions from the same government that set the requirement. So the government that set the standard for applications would be supplying evidence that could negate them.

UBCM president Trish Mandewo told CBC there isn’t a municipality in the province with enough shelter capacity to handle its homeless population.

That is despite funding for 5,000 shelter spaces in the last six year. The government said 4,800 people have also been moved to permanent, stable housing over that time.

Housing advocates and civil rights lawyers also objected from a different perspective. They said in an open letter that the change was harmful and allowed for forcible evictions of people who have nowhere else to go.

Kahlon said last Thursday that he would continue talking to those with concerns, but insisted the bill would proceed.

“We’re going to continue to engage with people as we move forward…It’s really important that we create some more certainty…”

But hours later, Premier David Eby expressed surprise that the province and the UBCM had such different understandings of the bill.

So he proposed holding off on bringing it into force, once it is passed this week.

“What we’re going to do is hold it … until we get to a place of mutual understanding, and then bring it into force…”

BC United critics started attacking the requirement prior to that shift. BC United MLA Mike de Jong said it was “an admission of failure on a colossal scale.”

Homeless counts around B.C. through the NDP terms show sizeable increases across the board, but the NDP is limiting municipalities’ ability to curb encampments by tying it to something that is a provincial responsibility, he said.

Injunctions on encampments have cropped up intermittently in Victoria going back 20 years.

The attempt to give “clarity and guidance” on future efforts has failed so far on both counts.

The bill will sit in a twilight zone until Eby and Kahlon can figure out a way past the objections.

lleyne@timescolonist.com