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'A really difficult case to win': Southwestern Ont. judge rules encampment can stay in Kitchener

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The Region of Waterloo has lost a court bid for an injunction to evict residents of an encampment on municipally owned land at Victoria Street North and Weber Street West in Kitchener.

For almost a year the region has been trying to clear the site to build a new central transit hub.

In court documents obtained by CTV on Friday, Justice M. Valente dismisses the region's bid for an injunction and declines to declare the homeless individuals living in the encampment in breach of a regional by-law.

He also says the region doesn't have enough accessible shelter space for the homeless population.

The ruling reads in part: "The region does not have adequate, accessible shelter spaces for its homeless population of some 1100 individuals".

Valente goes on to say that the by-law the region has used to enforce encampment orders "deprives the homeless residents of the Encampment of life, liberty and security of the person in a manner not in accordance with the principles of fundamental justice and is not saved by section 1 of the charter."

  

ENCAMPMENT LAWYERS RESPOND TO DECISION  

Shannon Down, the executive director at Waterloo Region Community Legal Services, said going into the court process she thought it was “going to be a reallydifficult case to win.”

“The arguments that we’re making on behalf of the people at the encampment, we’re going up against the region which is a much bigger entity than we are at the encampment and at our clinic,” said Down.

Despite the challenge, the team at Waterloo Region Community Legal Services said it was an important case.

“We thought it was a really important case, so we wanted to help the people here and do whatever we could to advance their case,” said Down.

According to Down, this is the first case in Ontario where it has been successfully argued that the charter rights were breached when an encampment is being cleared or evicted.

“It’s a really significant precedent, and I think because it’s a decision under the Charter, it has a wide application,” said Down.

When the decision was handed down, Ashley Schuitema, a lawyer at Waterloo Region Community Legal Services, said her reaction was tears of joy.

“It’s such an important decision, not just for our clients, not just for people living in encampment across Waterloo region, but for people that are experiencing homelessness across Ontario,” said Schuitema.

Schuitema said the case came with unique challenges, such as having clients that they had to develop relationships and trust with those living at the encampment before telling their stories.

Schuitema called Valente’s ruling: "An incredible decision for our clients and all the people in Ontario experiencing homelessness. Justice Valente’s finding that the encampment residents’ Charter Rights were infringed is a significant precedent for this province.”

The legal team said they will continue to advocate for other encampments and those living rough.

"IT'S PRECEDENT-SETTING"

This is a decision that hits close to home for encampment residents like Colin.

“It’s precedent-setting, so this is setting precedent across the city, across the province and across Canada, so I think it’s a huge victory for homeless,” Colin said.

Colin is one of the few who have set up camp at Victoria Park in Kitchener. He has been mindful of the proceedings playing out in court.

“Yeah, I’m very happy about the decision,” he said. “I’m hoping that this decision, you know, gets things moving faster.”

He goes on to say: “There’s not really space for people to be. People have to live somewhere, but the price of housing and everything, there’s a lot of barriers in place to get out of homelessness.”

Another encampment resident, Jason Paul, who said he has lived at the encampment for six months, said he is glad they do not have to worry about where they will be staying, but there is still some worry about where they will stay.

“It’s a step forward in the right direction towards affordable housing,” said Paul.

He added: “The lack of affordable housing in this city is a real issue right now and that’s why there are a lot of us that are homeless right?”

The region is assisting with a couple of projects to increase shelter, such as helping fund 100 new beds at the House of Friendship.

In December, the Region of Waterloo has announced the location of its first hybrid shelter, sometimes referred to as a managed encampment.

The site will be set up on regionally-owned land at 1001 Erbs Road on the border of the City of Waterloo and the Township of Wilmot.

The hybrid shelter will be home to up to 50 people, each with their own small cabin, equipped with electricity, heating and air conditioning. A main cabin complex will provide running water, washrooms, laundry services and space for meals.

Paul said he has applied to live at the hybrid shelter.”

“It’s only 50 homes though’ right, and the other new place is only 100 beds when there's like a thousand or so homeless people or people without homes,” he said.

REGION RESPONDS TO RULING 

In a statement Friday to CTV News, Regional Chair Karen Redman said: “We have received this afternoon’s decision of Justice Valente and will consider next steps and the impacts of this decision. Our commitment to supporting those experiencing homelessness continues, as we work to implement innovative and person-centred solutions, including our Interim Housing Solutions and the development of a Plan to End Chronic Homelessness. We want to acknowledge and appreciate the incredible staff and leaders working in the homelessness system and remain concerned about the health and safety of those living in unsanctioned encampments across the region.”

In another email statement to CTV, Kitchener Mayor Berry Vrbanovic said: “Our staff will be reviewing the decision with regional staff to better understand its implications, we will continue to work to ensure the unhoused throughout our community are treated with dignity, respect and empathy.”

The Region of Waterloo still has the option to appeal the decision with the Ontario Court of Appeal.

The Region of Waterloo did not immediately respond to CTV News Kitchener when asked for more information.

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