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Tents erected in Victoria as Vancouver lawyers consider ruling

Eight tents stood together in the Mayors' Grove of trees in Victoria's picturesque Beacon Hill Park this morning as people across the province digested the court decision that struck down the city's anti-camping bylaws.

“It's a really important decision,” said Laura Track, a lawyer working on Pivot Legal Society's housing campaign in Vancouver. Pivot has a similar case pending, she said, but hopes Vancouver city hall will learn from the Victoria case.

“In light of this decision we'd like to ask the city if it makes sense to proceed with going to trial,” she said. “We hope this judgment will help them to see things more clearly.”

The Victoria decision rested on the fact there are way more people homeless than there are available emergency shelter beds. “To me I can't see what difference they're going to point to between Vancouver and Victoria,” said Track. Vancouver has about 700 shelter beds for 1,600 homeless people, she said. “We think the legal analysis would be identical here in Vancouver.”

David Arthur Johnston, who has been in and out of jail over the past few years as he's fought for the right to sleep in public places, characterized the time since the court decision came down as “24 hours of anarchy.”

Johnston, rubbing his hands together in the morning cold, said the campers will likely build a kitchen today and may soon make a fire pit for warmth. They have a portable toilet, he said, and the city may also provide facilities.

A bylaw enforcement officer paid a cordial visit to the tent sites this morning, but did not write any tickets. Police officers drove by, one said “good morning” through a loudspeaker, but did not stop.

Victoria Mayor Alan Lowe said yesterday that tent cities will not be allowed as they attract crime. He also blamed the federal and provincial governments for their failure to provide housing. “This judgment demonstrates what years of cuts to social programming and housing programs has done,” he said.

The province's housing and social development minister, Rich Coleman, is yet to make a statement on the ruling. He was unavailable yesterday and remained unavailable today.

“The judge just told the city it's been acting criminally as long as it's had those bylaws,” Johnston said, adding the police are welcome to enforce laws against criminal activity. “If they want to deal with it on a tent by tent basis, let them. If somebody's going to deal crack out of their tent they invite their own karma.”

Despite the weather, he predicted homeless people will erect more tents in the region. “A lot of people are just getting used to the information. Not everyone wants to live in a tent city.”

Andrew MacLeod is The Tyee's Legislative Bureau Chief in Victoria. You can reach him here.

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