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Court overturns Victoria anti-camping bylaws

A B.C. Supreme Court judge has struck down the City of Victoria's bylaws that prevent homeless people from sleeping in city parks.

In a judgment released today, Justice Carol Ross found it is unconstitutional to prevent homeless people from sleeping on public property or erecting shelter to protect themselves when there are not enough shelter beds available for the number who are homeless.

“We're very, very pleased,” said Catherine Boies Parker, one of the lawyers representing the people challenging the bylaws. “It's a huge step towards recognizing the importance of the safety and the dignity of homeless people.”

Victoria mayor Alan Lowe did not immediately return a call to his cellphone.

“I'm sleeping in a tent-city tonight,” wrote David Arthur Johnston, one of the defendants challenging the bylaws, in an e-mail. Supporters were to meet at the Victoria court house at noon. “From there I intend to go to where I will set up a tent and invite others to initiate a tent-city.”

Johnston's new tent city will be one of many the ruling will allow to be established in Victoria and across Canada, he predicted.

"Fantastic ruling. I'm so excited," said Simon Ralph, also named as a defendant. "This ruling throws out any bylaw that infringes on anyone's right to sleep outside."

Ralph has had housing for the past couple years, but said he can't afford his rent and may now return to living outside.

“It's a huge victory,” said David Shebib, an activist who worked on a film about the right to sleep in public. “It means they can no longer arrest people for putting up a tent when they're homeless.”

The challenge has taken three years to get to a decision. It arose in 2005 after police closed a tent-city in Cridge Park in downtown Victoria. A trial was held in June.

Judge Ross' 112-page Reasons for Judgment found the sections of the Parks Regulation Bylaw and the Streets and Traffic Bylaw in question “violate . . . the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms in that they deprive homeless people of life, liberty and security of the person in a manner not in accordance with the principles of fundamental justice.”

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

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