A judge's recent decision to uphold the rights of un-sheltered residents camping on regionally owned land has raised additional concerns for at least one regional councillor who wants the camps gone and individuals living there encouraged to find shelter beds.
On Friday, Jan 28, Judge Michael J. Valente ruled in favor of the encampments in Waterloo region, awarding the residents a small victory.
The lawyer representing the encampment, Shannon Down with the Waterloo Region Community Legal Services, thinks the decision is a step in the right direction, but says there's still a lot of work to be done.
“This decision is not going to put them in shelters, they are still going to have to live in snow covered tents in the middle of winter,” Down says. “At minimum, this will grant them the small peace of mind that the land they are living on won’t be taken from them.”
It will prevent the region from evicting the residents of any camp, unless the municipality can prove they have adequately met the needs of the un-sheltered population throughout Waterloo region.
It's a decision criticized by regional councillor Doug Craig, who claims it would be difficult to prove the region has met these needs.
Craig questions the judge's decision and asks, “if there are enough shelter beds in Cambridge, why can’t they evict the encampment at 150 Main St.?”
Judge Valente made it clear that this is a regional issue and anything that would be done needs to consider all municipalities within the region.
“When you look at shelter beds, you also have to consider circumstances,” Down says.
“Some might not want to go because they have a partner who is not allowed in, they may be youth or they might have pets that cannot come in. So those shelter beds would not be suited for these individuals.”
Craig agrees that all parties want the same thing, for the residents of these camps and those experiencing homelessness to get into a warm and safe shelter; although, he disagrees with the judge and Down on how to achieve that goal.
“No one should be living in tents, they’re dangerous small communities,” Craig says. “No one in the community wants tents in their community either, it’s very clear.”
The former city mayor says safety and liability are among the main reasons why the region sent eviction notices to the camps last summer.
He says encampments are known to house "some dangerous individuals" and believes there are risks for people simply passing by.
Another scenario that brings the region's and the city's liability into question would be a fire that gets out of control and damages surrounding properties.
A recent fire at an encampment on city-owned property near Struck Court illustrated that point when firefighters found over 60 propane tanks near the blaze adjacent to Highway 401.
Luckily, for nearby residents and commuters, nothing exploded but Craig thinks situations like these would be avoided if the camps didn't exist.
Down points to the judge’s remarks on the risks and liability and said, ”It’s the region's obligation to mitigate these risks and if they don’t they could be liable.”
“Some of the risks that the region identified were risks that they themselves could have taken steps to reduce or to mitigate, but they did not," she said.
"I think the region has a lot of resources at their disposal and they could work with fire prevention to provide education to people living in encampments about how to be safer with explosive materials to reduce the risk of those fires happening. Those are questions that I think the region needs to answer."
CambridgeToday reached out to the Region of Waterloo for comment on the liability issue but didn't get a response.
Another advocate for the encampments, Dr. Erin Dej, a criminology professor at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, thinks this decision will set a precedent for how municipalities in Ontario approach the subject of camps and homelessness.
"This decision provides a clear direction for municipalities across Ontario about what approaches are lawful and align with the Charter and will hopefully provide incentive for municipalities to find other tools to support encampment residents and recognize that injunctions are not a viable choice," Dej said.
Over the last few months the region has taken steps to provide alternatives for people living in camps.
With the creation and eventual opening of the open hybrid shelter at 1001 Erbs Road in Waterloo, the region is looking at viable solutions that will bridge the gap from the streets to housing.
Dej is hopeful that this decision will encourage the region to work alongside encampment residents and advocates and take the time to respond to homelessness in a way that is productive, helpful, and that reaffirms un-housed people as rights holders and not as problems to be hidden away.
"It also confirms what they've been telling us, that constantly displacing people and moving them around is incredibly harmful and dehumanizing for people who are homeless and doesn't actually address community concerns," said Dej.