WATCH: After five months of living on an empty city lot in Nanaimo, about 300 homeless people will have to find a new place to pitch their tents. A B.C. Supreme Court judge has ruled in favour of the city and has given the campers 21 days to get out.
A British Columbia judge has ordered the shut down of the tent city at Nanaimo’s south downtown waterfront where about 300 people are currently living.
Justice Ronald Skolrood of the B.C. Supreme Court said in a 38-page decision that there are safety concerns at the site. During the statutory injunction hearing, the city’s legal counsel cited increased fire risks due to the expanding size of the tent city, as well as drug use, violence and other criminal activity at Discontent City and the surrounding neighbourhood. There have been two fire safety orders issued against Discontent City.
“I am further satisfied that the safety and related concerns identified by Nanaimo, both within the Tent City and those affecting neighboring residents and businesses, are sufficient to meet the test for irreparable harm. I will address those harms further below,” Skolrood wrote.
He also said Nanaimo’s case is different from other tent cities where interference with use and access to public spaces, for example, public parks, is not an issue due to the fact that the property is not for public use and is leased to third parties by the city.
“In my view, the fact that the property may not be purely public in nature, in that members of the public have no right of use or access, strengthens rather than weakens the case for an injunction. Specifically, the unlawful access and ongoing occupation of the Ppoperty in breach of the Zoning Bylaw, which also involves interference with third party rights in respect of the property, is a form of harm that is not quantifiable or compensable in monetary terms,” Skoolrood wrote.
Skolrood’s ruling states “oppositional attitudes” with some residents point to a deteriorating leadership structure at Discontent City. He also accepted evidence from various police witnesses that there has been significant criminal activity in the neighbouring areas.
The ruling grants the city an injunction to shut down the camp in 21 days.
Skolrood also granted an enforcement clause “given the aggressive response by certain occupants to the previous efforts of fire safety officials. Once the 21 days are over, the clause allows Nanaimo RCMP to arrest and remove the homeless campers who are still at the site and are contravening the terms of the order. Skolrood has previously rejected the city’s application for a police enforcement order after the homeless campers did not comply with a court-imposed provincial fire safety order.
“The law has never recognized these permanent encampments. It’s wonderful that the court has acknowledged that and has recognized that the state of the law is exactly what we said it was when this tent city first came out,” Jarrett Plonka, City of Nanaimo lawyer said.
The City of Nanaimo said in a statement they are working with BC Housing, Ministry of Children and Families, Island Health and other agencies to “conduct an orderly transition of occupants off the site.”
The city wants to help manage an orderly closure of this camp that respects the dignity of campers and protects residents and businesses,” the city said in the statement.
“We want to work collaboratively with occupants and provincial agencies to find other options and to help people find other places to live within the next 21 days. Public safety is a critical concern. We urge campers to do everything possible to reduce the risk of fire and other threats to health and safety.”
The city also said the judge’s order recognizes the serious fire safety risks on the site.
While the injunction was granted to the city, Skolrood did note in his analysis that homelessness is a multi-faceted social problem with no one cause and with no single or obvious solution.
“I would note that many of the concerns identified by Nanaimo, such as increased panhandling, garbage, noise, business disruption etc. are not necessarily the result of the tent city, but rather are incidents of homelessness,” Skolrood wrote in his decision
“The fact that there are arguably both benefits and harms that result from the tent city and similar encampments underscores the point that developing solutions to address the growing homelessness issue involves policy and legislative choices that are within the purview of government, not the courts.”
Tent city residents said they were frustrated and angry after the ruling.
“I think this is absolutely disgusting and it’s a travesty. I think that their sentencing all of these homeless people in this camp to a death sentence,” Discontent City spokeswoman Amber McGrath said.
Tent city resident Melissa Burkhart said there isn’t enough affordable homes in the area.
“The judge has ruled that we have 21 days to find suitable affordable accommodations and I think the fact that we’ve been here for four months just displays that there isn’t suitable accommodation,” Burkhard said.
Tent city resident Ruby said she doesn’t where she or the others will go.
“Where we going to go right now right we don’t know. We’re going back out onto the street where we started from and will be dispersed throughout the city,” Ruby said.
Nanaimo does allow temporary overnight camping in Bowen Park, Colliery Dam Park and Pioneer Park. Anyone camping in the park has to dismantle their tent and leave by 9 a.m. each morning.
There are two emergency shelters in Nanaimo: the New Hope Centre and Samaritan House. In May 2018, the New Hope Centre at 99 per cent occupancy, which fell to 85 per cent occupancy in June. In May 2018, Samaritan House had three separate days where there was only one bed, according to the ruling.
First Unitarian Fellowship of Nanaimo operates a cold-weather shelter that is open from Nov. 1 to March 31.
Currently, there is a Supreme Court decision allowing overnight camping in B.C. in public parks, however, there is no provision for daytime sheltering and in a town like Nanaimo, where there’s no daytime shelter, there’s nowhere for homeless people to go in the day,” Noah Ross, the lawyer representing Discontent City, said.
Solrood wrote that a permanent injunction would require a trial.
“I decline to make the broader order sought by Nanaimo which would prohibit the erection of tents and other structures on any property owned by Nanaimo without its written authorization. Any such future encampments can only be assessed in light of the circumstances existing at the time.”
Sophie Wendling, Discontent City organizer, said the group will consider setting up a new camp.
“So the fight is not over the next step is for us to decide how to fight back and that’s what we’re gonna do,” Wendling said.
Discontent City was first set up in May by a small group of protesters who broke into the Port Drive property. The protesters were attempting to raise awareness about the plight of homeless people.
There are now approximately 300 people in the camp. In August, one man suffered serious burns after an explosion involving fireworks inside his tent.