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Judge denies City of Vancouver application for injunction to remove tent city on Main Street

Keith Fraser

Maria Wallstam at a homeless camp on Main Street near National Street in Vancouver, April 30, 2017. (Arlen Redekop/Postmedia Network) [PNG Merlin Archive]

Maria Wallstam at a homeless camp on Main Street near National Street in Vancouver, April 30, 2017. (Arlen Redekop/Postmedia Network) [PNG Merlin Archive]

A judge has denied the City of Vancouver an application for an injunction to remove a homeless encampment on a city-owned lot on Main Street that has been vacant for nearly 20 years.

In a ruling released Wednesday, B.C. Supreme Court Justice Neena Sharma said that the city had not met the legal test for an injunction, including a requirement that it prove that it would suffer "irreparable harm" if the court order was not granted.

She noted that the occupants of the tent city at 950 Main had persuasively argued that their safety would be jeopardized if they were required to leave the site.

A lawyer for the city had told the judge that there was an urgent need for the roughly 50 homeless people to vacate the site because there was a risk that a social-housing project planned for the lot would lose funding. Iain Dixon said that a significant amount of funding would be jeopardized if the development, which would see 26 units of social housing built, did not go ahead.

But the judge said she did not have sufficient evidence of the urgency and noted that there was no indication that dates on a timeline for the project were inflexible. Sharma said that while everyone can agree that social housing is important, the occupants of the site had pointed out that the tent city was preferable to whatever might be planned for the site.

"They also say that if they have to leave the site, they will have nowhere else to go," said the judge.

On April 28, a locked chain-link fence was breached at the unoccupied city lot on Main and a number of people entered the site to establish the tent city.

Dixon earlier told the judge that other homeless camps have been set up around the province that have resulted in a number of court cases and noted that in cases in which the City of Vancouver has had to deal with a homeless tent city in the past, the city had waited until a protest site had become unsafe before seeking an injunction. "This is different because this is an active development site and we are trying to build social housing for disadvantaged people."

Dixon added that the site, which has about 30 tents and other structures, has not represented a significant safety issue, but the city needs to gain access in order to do an environmental assessment before construction can begin.

Maria Wallstam, a homeless advocate who is a member of Alliance Against Displacement, told the judge that the site was a safe location for people and that a court order to dismantle the tent city would compromise their safety. She said that there was a "desperate" need for housing for homeless people and added that the tent city had had to turn away a dozen people every day since it was set up.

Wallstam told the judge that while the social-housing project was not insignificant, it would only result in eight homeless people qualifying for shelter at the location. She said that there were "immense" mental-health benefits for people on the site and if they were forced to leave, they'd be back living in alleys and faced with threats to their well-being, including violence.

Asked to comment outside court, Wallstam said that the judge's ruling was a "very positive development" for the occupants at the site. "Part of our argument was that displacing the tent city would jeopardize the Charter right of homeless people to security and liberty, and we won. For now."

Court heard that the lot was acquired by the city in June 1998 for the purpose of development of social housing. In January 2016, city council agreed in principle to the development of a mixed-use project with commercial and retail, as well as social housing. It is one of four sites in which a total of 600-700 social-housing units are to be built for aboriginal households. In April, the city received a development-permit application for the site filed on behalf of the Lu'ma Native Housing Society.

kfraser@postmedia.com

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