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Michèle Biss and D.J. Larkin: Stop blaming those who are homeless

Right now in Victoria, more than 100 individuals have created a community on the courthouse lawn. It’s a community like most others, except everyone is homeless.


Right now in Victoria, more than 100 individuals have created a community on the courthouse lawn. It’s a community like most others, except everyone is homeless.

You might have heard about the community: That it’s full of crime, a safety hazard or perhaps that it’s a costly nuisance to the neighbourhood. You might have read news stories that portray the tent city through a lens of contempt and stigma. But this isn’t the real story.

We want to turn your attention to the human reality in that camp, because these are people with lives, stories, families and rights. They are not simply a nuisance to be brushed aside.

Homelessness is not going away soon. On any given night in 2016, more than 1,000 people in Victoria are forced to turn to temporary or emergency shelters. Every day, too many women, children and men are turned away from shelters, usually because facilities are full.

And there is a continued lack of action by B.C. to make change. B.C. is the only province or territory in Canada that has not taken concrete steps toward a poverty-reduction strategy. The provincial emergency-shelter program funds only 147 year-round emergency shelter beds in Victoria. An additional 110 seasonal spots are available on winter nights — these spots are generally mats on a floor in a communal space.

The reality is that hundreds of people every year have no choice but to seek shelter in parks and public spaces, an act for which they are harassed, displaced and even ticketed.

Even if you’ve never experienced homelessness, surely you can imagine what it’s like to be denied the right to occupy public space, to be told your existence is a nuisance to others.

This is the context for the creation of the Super InTent City community — a space where campers say they feel respected, where they are safe, where they don’t need to carry around their worldly belongings all day or line up for limited temporary shelter spots every night.

But there’s a court decision that could change everything.

On April 6, 2016, the chief justice of the B.C. Supreme Court denied an injunction to remove the community and disperse the tent city. Now, the B.C. government has again sought an injunction to displace the camp.

This means that despite a trial date set for September, which would determine the final future of the camp, the government might attempt to jump the gun and evict the community sooner.

It is not overstating to say that the legal decision that will follow this injunction will have serious consequences for homeless people in Canada and their human rights.

Homelessness is a violation of human rights. Like the right to freedom of speech or freedom of assembly, this is fundamentally a human-rights issue. Canada has signed international treaties that legally require all levels of government (including the government of B.C.) to ensure all persons have an adequate standard of living and live in dignity.

In reality, the act of not displacing the camp is the bare minimum that the government could do to fulfil its human-rights obligations to ensure that all people in the province are free of homelessness. This will take more than a piecemeal approach to opening temporary shelter spaces or an ad hoc provision of a few new units of housing — it will take a co-ordinated, dedicated and properly funded strategy to provide tens of thousands of new social housing units per year until this crisis is abated.

For a nation bidding for a seat on the UN Security Council, you’d think Canadian governments would take our obligations more seriously. This violation of human rights is so obvious. In one fell swoop, more than 100 marginalized individuals could be evicted. With inadequate shelter options and an almost zero vacancy rate, they will again be forced to seek shelter in other public spaces, demoralized and robbed of dignity.

So, what will it take for us to stop blaming those who are homeless and turn our attention to the real problem: the government’s failure to take real, rights-based actions to end homelessness long-term?


Michèle Biss is the legal-education and outreach co-ordinator at Canada Without Poverty. D.J. Larkin is a housing justice lawyer at Pivot Legal Society.

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