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Victoria loses appeal of right-to-shelter case

The City of Victoria has lost its appeal of a 2008 court ruling that struck down the city's anti-camping bylaws while the number of people who are homeless exceeds the number of available shelter beds.

“The court has made it clear they are going to take the rights of homeless people, the most marginalized people in the city, seriously,” said Catherine Boies Parker, a lawyer who along with Irene Faulkner represented a group of people who were forced out of a tent city set up in a city park in 2005.

“We hope now the city will sit down with everyone and try to come up with a reasonable accommodation,” she said, noting that it's rare for cases involving the rights of people who are homeless or living in poverty to be heard in court.

A message to a city spokesperson was not returned by publication time.

Madam Justice Risa Levine, Madam Justice Kathryn Neilson and Justice Harvey Groberman ruled that Madam Justice Carol Ross who heard the original case in the Supreme Court of B.C. was correct in her ruling and did not intrude improperly on the policy decisions of elected officials.

“We agree with the trial judge that prohibiting the homeless from taking simple measures to protect themselves through the creation or utilization of rudimentary forms of overhead protection, in circumstances where there is no practicable shelter alternative, is a significant interference with their dignity and independence,” the appeal court justices wrote.

Boies Parker said the ruling will make it harder for governments to pass similar laws in the future without taking the dignity of the people they affect into consideration.

The appeal judges also ruled that the city would have to pay the costs Boies Parker and Faulkner incurred to fight the appeal. This is on top of the $200,000 the court required the city to pay for them to fight the original case, plus the city's own costs.

Since the original ruling the city has adjusted its bylaws to allow overnight camping but requires tents to be removed during the daytime. The appeal is silent on the constitutionality of the new bylaws, but Boies Parker said she expects they will also be struck down if and when they are tested in court.

UPDATE: Victoria's city council decided after being briefed by municipal lawyers Dec. 10 that it will not appeal the ruling.

Andrew MacLeod is The Tyee’s Legislative Bureau Chief in Victoria. Reach him here.

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