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Shelter legislation paused while province consults with local governments

The Union of B.C. Municipalities says it would be “practically impossible” for municipalities seeking to remove tent cities to show shelter is available for all of the unhoused.
A tent is pitched on the boulevard on the 800-block of Pandora Avenue on Thursday. DARREN STONE, TIMES COLONIST

Premier David Eby says he’s asked for controversial legislation around tent cities and shelters to be delayed to allow for further discussions with local governments before it comes into effect.

“Because we all have the same goal, which is to ensure people have dignified shelter and housing and that we’re able to address encampments in the province,” Eby told reporters on Thursday.

The legislation, introduced by the provincial government last week, will be brought in by order in council rather than royal assent to allow more time for discussion, the premier said.

The president of the Union of B.C. Municipalities had asked the province to withdraw the proposed legislation, which would require municipalities seeking to remove tent cities to first show reasonable shelter is available for all of the unhoused — a requirement the UBCM said would be a “practically impossible” to meet.

Trish Mandewo, who conveyed her concerns about Bill 45 to Housing Minister Ravi Kahlon in a meeting on Tuesday, said she’s pleased there will be more time for discussion.

“We believe the legislation as it stands is flawed,” Mandewo said. “It is a provincial responsibility to provide shelter beds and they are in short supply around the province.”

The UBCM is holding an online meeting on Nov. 28 with elected municipal officials and staff to discuss the implications of the bill.

Under the proposed legislation, local governments wanting to shut down a tent encampment through a court injunction must ensure alternate shelter is reasonably available to those who are unhoused, and meets their basic needs, including a bathroom, shower and at least one meal at or near the shelter.

The UBCM president argued the amendment could lead to long-term or permanent encampments in public spaces— with associated public safety, sanitation and health problems — if tenters know local governments will not be granted injunctions.

Eby said he was surprised that municipalities and the provincial government “have such different understandings of the legislation,” adding that what the province is trying “desperately” to avoid is an array of contradictory court decisions on the standard cities have to meet in order to close down an encampment.

“And so by having a clear standard, we assist judges, we assist communities and the provincial government to know what standard we have to meet,” said Eby. “So I think that we’re going to be able to get to a more common understanding.”

Kahlon said he’s been meeting with the UBCM executive for many weeks, with the goal of creating more certainty around the outcome of such court cases. “Right now, every time a court makes a decision, there is more uncertainty being created on how local governments can work with encampments,” he said.

A letter from the UBCM released Thursday says it is “highly unlikely that any community in B.C. has sufficient shelter space for all unhoused persons.”

But Kahlon argued if local governments want shelter space, “they should approve locations and we will fund them,” citing a decision this month where Duncan council voted 4-3 against opening an extreme weather shelter.

The legislature only has a few more days of sitting until the fall session ends.

Nanaimo Mayor Leonard Krog said he doubts Bill 45 would have much impact on the ability of municipalities to break up substantial encampments because recent court decisions are already making it “almost impossible” to do so once they are established.

“Having said that, this will be an incentive to municipalities to try and break up camps as they start to develop very quickly, before they end up being the subject of potential court cases.”

Once encampments are established, they can become centres of social disorder, said Krog, who argues the only way to prevent them is to provide secure and involuntary care, supportive housing and more services for people dealing with mental health and addiction problems so they don’t end up on the streets.

In 2018, Nanaimo was home to what was then the largest encampment in the province. The municipality, which has an estimated homeless population of 500 to 800, eventually won a court order to dismantle it.

City council recently endorsed a policy calling for protection of emergency shelters and warming centres that do not meet B.C.’s building or fire codes.

Nanaimo city staff say that on any given night, about 400 people sleep outdoors, including in some city parks, because of a shortage of shelter beds and mats.

Courts are sympathetic to “those people who are living in the streets, as they justifiably should be,” Krog said.

“Everybody wants the issues of mental health, addictions, trauma, brain injury and homelessness and the resulting crime dealt with. Everybody. No question.”