Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Court brings action on homelessness

Coming soon to a park near you - homeless people in tents, under tarps and sheltered by cardboard boxes.
That's the spectre that has people here in the capital in an uproar.
And the court ruling that cleared the way for park camping applies to all the communities across the province, large and small, where homelessness has become a big problem.
Housing Minister Rich Coleman called the decision "ridiculous." Some commentators frothed at the mouth.
But take the time to read the judgment - there's a link at Willcocks.blogspot.com - and it's hard to disagree with B.C. Supreme Court Justice Carol Ross.
She was hearing a case that's dragged on for three years now, due to delays by the city and the province. It challenged campers' 2005 eviction from a Victoria park.
At issue was a city bylaw that barred people from using a tarp, or tent or cardboard as a shelter if they had to sleep outside.
Ross found, based on the evidence in court, that there were some 1,400 homeless people in Victoria - including children. There are 140 permanent shelter spaces, though more are opened when temperatures plummet.
So, inevitably, people are forced to sleep outside. Some might chose to, but many don't.
Sleeping outside without any shelter creates suffering, illness and the risk of death, experts testified.
The charter of rights and freedoms prohibits laws that threaten Canadians' lives or impose suffering, without cause.
So the bylaw is unconstitutional. People, most of whom have nowhere else to sleep, have a right put up a tarp to keep the sleet off them and offer a little warmth.
It's important to note Ross didn't rule people could camp permanently in parks or displace other users. But they had a right to shelter.
I can't see any weak points in the ruling. Sure, some people are homeless by true choice. You can argue they shouldn't have the right to camp in a park when most people don't.
But it's wretched to be homeless. Sleeping outside is cold and scary; shelters are chaotic. You are almost always cold, dirty, sick, hungry and exhausted.
People rarely choose that life. They got knocked down and can't get back up again. They're addicted, or suffer with mental illnesses, or angry. They don't want to be sleeping in an alley, woken up at 7 a.m. by police, too exhausted and filthy to have any hope of sorting things out.
In the capital region, the court heard, 40 per cent of the homeless population were mentally ill; half were addicted to alcohol and other drugs. Since many were both ill and addicted, about 800 people were on the streets dealing with those kinds of problems. It makes them incredibly difficult to house.
It's not a question of them not wanting to just buck up and miraculously find a job and an apartment. They really can't do that.
And we haven't found a way to keep them sheltered, safe and out of our way. The institutions that were home to many were closed in past decades, without adequate community supports.
Coleman's basic point was that the court didn't recognize what the government was doing. He trotted out numbers about how much spending had increased since the Liberals took office.
But, as Gordon Campbell said in opposition, you don't measure government effectiveness by how much was spent. You look at results.
In Victoria and most cities around the province, homelessness and the related problems of crime and urban decay have grown worse over the last seven years.
Two days after the ruling, Coleman announced mats would be placed on floors to provide shelter for 45 more people; another 40 spaces of some kind are expected this week.
Until the court ruling, the government was content to have this people sleep outside - and to have them barred from putting up basic shelter.
Footnote: The problems' roots go back well before the Liberals were elected. But the Campbell government has failed to come to grips with the mounting homelessness and addiction issues in communities across the province until things had reached a crisis point not in communities, making the challenge much greater now.

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