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Victoria allows homeless to sleep in parks

New legislation could cause a domino effect across Canada, legalizing temporary shelters in public places

“I’m sleeping in a tent-city tonight,” David Johnson declared in an email from Victoria, B.C.

Johnson, who is homeless, has been an outspoken opponent of by-laws that until Tuesday made it illegal for homeless people to set up “temporary abodes” in the city’s parks and other public spaces in Victoria.

The laws were struck down this week when the B.C. Supreme Court ruled them unconstitutional.

In her ruling, Justice Carol Ross said the the bylaws violated section seven of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms – which guarantees life, liberty, and security of the person, except “in accordance with the principles of fundamental justice.”

Ross noted that while there are more than 1,000 homeless people living in Victoria, there are less than 350 shelter beds.

“I have found that a significant number of people living in the City of Victoria have no choice but to sleep outside in the City’s parks or streets,” she wrote.

“The City’s Bylaws prohibit those homeless persons from erecting even the most rudimentary form of shelter to protect them from the elements.”

The ruling came after a lengthy court battle which began in October 2005, when police evicted Johnson and a group of at least 20 others from Cridge Park, near Victoria’s downtown, where they had set up camp.

Advocates for the homeless lauded the judgement.

“We’re happy with the ruling,” said Chris Aung-Thwin, coordinator for Homeless Nation, a non-profit organization that uses Internet tools to empower homeless people all over Canada.

Catherine Boies Parker, one of the lawyers involved in the case, said the ruling will affect the way cities write laws in the future.

“[This decision] means that when lawmakers are legislating, they have to take into account the impact of those laws on the people who live on the streets, the people who are really most vulnerable to the use of state power,” she said.

The ruling could also cause identical bylaws in other Canadian cities to be declared void, according to McGill law professor Armand de Mestral.

“Depending on the wording of bylaws in other municipalities, it could well have implications on their bylaws as well,” de Mestral explained.

But Victoria mayor Alan Lowe has already voiced opposition to the ruling. He believes the emergence of tent cities could compromise public safety, and open the door to crime and environmental degradation in the city’s parks.

“We have seen first hand the ill effects of tent cities,” Lowe said in a press conference Tuesday afternoon.

“In 2005, at Cridge Park, we saw a tent city that became a hub of illegal activity, health concern, and vandalism.”

Lowe said the city may try to appeal the ruling, and shifted the problem of homelessness in Victoria to federal cuts on social spending and housing. He called on other levels of government to take action.

“Municipal governments were never in the business of providing housing and social support services to individuals in need,” Lowe said.