Poverty and homelessness are not a “nuisance”

Op-eds Opinions

The Province of British Columbia’s failed injunction against the tent city on the grounds of the provincial courts sets precedent in a positive direction. Law tends to follow precedents of previous cases and in this case, Abbotsford v. Shantz (2015) was put to the test. Chief Justice Hinkson ruled, after a sad foray into the plaintiff’s numerous complaints and affidavits against poverty and homelessness based on the grounds of “public nuisance,” ruled that the tent city’s positive effects far exceed those supposed claims.

The word “nuisance” appears 15 times in the document. This is an institutional act in which people’s quality of life is questioned on the basis of inconveniencing others, and that is perplexing to think about. Those who are in poverty because of social and life circumstances, mental illness, and lack of existing social supports — or dehumanizing supports (being kicked out of shelters at 7 a.m. or being subjected to the strict moral standards of a shelter) — cannot be considered a nuisance. That some do proves just how utterly disconnected most people are from the realities of poverty and homelessness.

In considering the weight of the plaintiffs and defendants’ claims, Justice Hinkson took into consideration Abbotsford v. Shantz, where injunctions against the homeless were passed, leading to what was dubbed “the Abbotsford shuffle.” An injunction is a temporary solution without an actual resolution.

A central question is posed that informs the decision of the ruling: “Will the applicant suffer irreparable harm if an injunction is not granted?”

The applicant is the province, who holds the land in trust for public use, and it is absurd to imagine a substantial claim of “irreparable” harm in this context. This particular land will not experience irreparable harm in contrast to human lives; the grass will continue to grow, but a material solution to a serious homelessness issue will not without thoughtful changes in policy.

In the summary stage of the report, Hinkson declares:

The defendants in this case appear to benefit from responsible leadership and organization, and have established effective lines of communication between themselves and police, fire and public health authorities, in a way that prior homeless individuals whose activities have been discussed in the previous decisions of this Court were unable to do. While the Encampment has not been without its difficulties and challenges, it is an improvement over its predecessors.

The residents are experiencing greater community support, and as several defendants stated, they are able to sleep past 7 a.m., which seems trivial but is vital to mental health. The fact that the residents of the tent city have experienced an improvement in their well-being attests to the facts of a deficient support system for the homeless.

Human dignity is founded on respect for one another, and the homeless fall into a social category with the least amount of power and therefore respect. This case demonstrates that human lives cannot be manipulated because of a perceived nuisance. I hope this ruling will be cited in future cases, where questions of basic dignity are at stake, by giving a voice to a population that does not ordinarily have one.