A wheelchair-bound man who says he is dying of cancer would rather stay living in a tent in Oppenheimer Park than move into a temporary shelter.
“Shelters ain’t the answer,” said Scott Bonnyman outside the B.C. Supreme Court Monday morning during a recess in a court proceeding where the City of Vancouver is seeking an injunction that would allow police and firefighters to remove dozens of people and all temporary structures from the makeshift tent city in the Downtown Eastside that has been in place since July.
“They made it very clear to myself and others who reside in the park that we must go to these shelter ‘beds’ which are just mats on the floor,” he added. “I spoke up and said that was not acceptable to a lot of us. They said to us, quote unquote, ‘That is not our problem. Our problem is to get you in out of the weather. You don’t need to sleep.’”
The city says it has offered 70 spots in homeless shelters, many of them in a newly opened facility in the former Kettle of Fish restaurant at the north end of the Burrard Bridge. The city also announced in September that it reached a deal to open 157 units of temporary housing in the former Quality Inn at 1135 Howe St. that will open in November, but many at the encampment have said they prefer the relative security of the tent city. The camp began in protest over the lack of adequate housing in the city for low-income and homeless people.
Ben Parkin, a lawyer for the city, pointed to the removal of the Occupy Vancouver encampment in 2011 and the Woodward’s Building squat in 2002 as legal precedents.
“The facts in this case are indistinguishable from the Occupy Vancouver case and… there is no basis to find exceptional circumstances that would justify the refusal of the injunction,” he told the court. “The defendants may argue that the importance of their message or the seriousness of their allegations may constitute exceptional circumstances but those arguments do not, in fact, constitute exceptional circumstance as that term is defined.”
The city is seeking the encampment’s removal under a park board bylaw in the Vancouver Charter that prevents people from setting up structures on park land. Insp. Howard Chow of the Vancouver Police Department said in an affidavit that more than $100,000 has been paid out in overtime to officers responding to incidents at the park, which include multiple fights and weapons seizures. Police responded to a total of 364 calls to the park in the three months after the encampment began.
“So far what we’ve heard from the city is basically there are no circumstances that would be exceptional enough to let people stay until they have a meaningful alternative,” said DJ Larkin of the Pivot Legal Society, who is representing tent city residents in the suit. “The city has presented their evidence and they are entitled to enforce their bylaw that homelessness is not an exceptional circumstance that would justify allowing people to stay there until they have access to shelter and housing.”
Pivot is not seeking a dismissal of the injunction application but rather more time to find housing for all residents, many of whom suffer from mental health and/or addictions problems and are not willing to file the necessary paperwork to begin the process. They are arguing that forcing people out before they have somewhere else to go will cause “irreparable harm” to their clients.
B.C. Supreme Court Justice Jennifer Duncan issued an interim injunction order Sept. 30 demanding campers remove all open flame or flammable heat sources, including a “ceremonial fire,” that was not obeyed. According to Vancouver Fire and Rescue Services assistant fire chief Joe Foster, the fire has been seen left burning unattended and propane tanks are still found in abundance.
More news to come as this story develops.