VICTORIA — The New Democrats wrapped up the fall session of the legislature by cutting off debate on a contentious measure that limits the ability of local government to manage homeless encampments.
The government’s resort to closure Thursday ended efforts by the B.C. United and the Green parties to elicit a better understanding of the rationale for the brief, but potentially far-reaching measure.
The NDP majority then enacted the legislation as drafted, despite Premier David Eby’s earlier acknowledgment of strong and potentially valid criticisms from local government.
The measure, just two paragraphs in length, was introduced late in the fall session as part of a grab-bag miscellaneous statutes amendment act.
It was supposed to provide guidelines for the courts where a municipality seeks an injunction to limit encampments in parks and other public spaces.
Municipalities must demonstrate that there is a “reasonably available alternative shelter,” defined as “a staffed place where an individual may stay overnight and have access — either at or nearby to the shelter — to a bathroom or a shower and an offered meal.”
The legislation caught local government leaders unaware. There was no consultation and it took some time for them to obtain legal assessment of the implications.
But the reaction, when it came, was sweeping.
“No municipality in British Columbia has sufficient shelter space for their growing homeless population. As a result, the inability of the province to create adequate shelters has a direct bearing on whether a court will be able to grant an injunction for decampment,” said the Union of B.C. Municipalities in a statement.
“The UBCM believes that by reducing the likelihood of municipalities being granted an injunction, their ability to enforce sheltering bylaws will be diminished and the result will be more long-term or permanent encampments.”
The UBCM called for the province to withdraw the legislation and instead “work with local governments on solutions aimed at immediate and sufficient housing to provide real support for unhoused people.”
Premier David Eby initially seemed to be taken aback by the strong response from an organization known more for working with the province. He expressed surprise that the UBCM had “such a different understanding of the legislation.”
The province was trying clarify the standards that municipalities have to meet in order to close down an encampment.
“By having a clear standard, we assist judges, we assist communities and the provincial government to know what standard we have to meet,” Eby told reporters last week.
He said the government would hold off implementation of the new law to allow time for the province and municipalities to “get to a more common understanding” about the legislation.
It was the first time that Eby had blinked even slightly in the face of criticism of his ambitious housing plan. But it soon became apparent that he had no intention of withdrawing the measure.
He was simply going to try to persuade local government leaders that the government was right and they were wrong.
“This particular bill responds to a real challenge in our communities,” Eby told reporters this week. “This is not something that we go into with a sense of excitement. This is something that has to be done.
“We do not want to end up in the situation of Oregon and California, of expanding city-sized encampments that cannot be addressed. And at the same time, we want to ensure that we are recognizing the basic human rights and dignity of people who are sleeping outside through no fault of their own.
“So, we will continue to do this work.”
In Eby’s reading of the criticisms, the UBCM says the legislation will make “it impossible to remove encampments. Housing advocates and Indigenous leaders say “the complete opposite.”
The legislation would be passed as drafted, without any changes, Eby indicated.
His only concession to the critics was a provision that it would not be brought in to force when the session ended Thursday. Rather it will be implemented by cabinet order at an unspecified later date.
“This gives the opportunity to go back to the stakeholders, to talk through what are their concerns,” said Eby.
“Our hope is that by meeting with the different advocates, whether for municipalities or First Nations or housing advocates, that we’re able to help people understand the intent of the bill, have a discussion about whether it achieves that intent, and really narrow down what our points of difference are.”
He hopes they’ll come around to the logic of the government position.
But if they don’t, and want amendments?
“It can’t be amended,” said Eby. “It would have to come back to the legislature for further debate if there were changes that needed to be made.”
The next such opportunity would be in the session starting in February.
He vowed that “if we can’t address the concerns, then we won’t bring the bill into force.”
But the critics will just have to take the premier’s word for that.
Now that the measure has been passed by the legislature, all it takes is the stroke of a pen at the cabinet table to make it law.
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