‘Too soon to know’ how court ruling will affect Kingston encampment policies

A recent ruling by the Ontario Superior Court of Justice may force the City of Kingston to reconsider its approach to encampments on public property, like the one at Belle Park. Photo by Penny Cadue/Kingstonist, January 2023.

A recent ruling by the Ontario Superior Court of Justice could have major implications for the City of Kingston and its handling of the encampment near Belle Park. On Friday, Jan. 27, 2023, Justice M.J. Valente ruled against the Region of Waterloo’s application to evict residents of an encampment on public property. 

In a 52-page ruling, Valente found that the Region’s bylaw prohibiting encampments violated residents’ Charter rights — in particular, the rights to life, liberty, and security of the person included in Section 7 of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. “The bylaw violates Section 7 of the Charter in that it 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.”

Valente also took issue with the fact that the number of homeless individuals in the Region currently exceeds the number of available shelter beds. “The bylaw is inoperative insofar as it applies to prevent the encampment residents from living and erecting temporary shelters on the property when the number of homeless individuals in the [Waterloo] Region exceeds the number of accessible shelter beds.” 

Not only was Valente concerned with the overall number of shelter beds in the Region, but the ruling also pointed out that not all shelters meet the needs of the area’s diverse homeless population. “If the available spaces are impractical for homeless individuals, either because the shelters do not accommodate couples, are unable to provide required services, impose rules that cannot be followed due to addictions, or cannot accommodate mental or physical disability, they are not low-barrier and accessible to the individuals they are meant to serve.”

While Valente’s ruling applies specifically to the Region of Waterloo’s bylaw, the case could have widespread implications for other municipalities and set a precedent regarding similar encampment bylaws. The City of Kingston is one such municipality that has had to deal with an influx of encampments on public property as a result of the current housing crisis. Like the Region of Waterloo, the City of Kingston has enacted a bylaw that expressly prohibits camping on public property

Since 2020, the City has dealt with several encampments in and around Belle Park. Despite bylaws prohibiting such activities, the City has struggled to put a permanent end to the encampment, which first popped up in the spring of 2020. The City’s latest attempt to remove the encampment was put on hold by councillors at a meeting earlier this month. 

Now, following the news out of Waterloo, Kingston’s mayor and city councillors have reacted to Valente’s ruling and offered their thoughts on the potential impact the case may have on Kingston’s approach to public encampments.

In a statement issued to Kingstonist, Mayor Bryan Paterson said, “City Council will be having discussions with City legal staff in the coming weeks to better understand the implications of the encampment ruling from Waterloo Region. The ruling contains significant details City staff need to work through… There are also some key differences to consider between the encampment situation in Waterloo Region and the situation here in Kingston.”

“This ruling appears to impose a substantial new responsibility on municipalities without providing any of the necessary resources,” added Paterson. “The City has worked incredibly hard over the last several years to create a more comprehensive approach to homelessness, including an investment of $18 million into expanding the number of available shelter spaces, opening new warming centres, providing free transit to move people between support services, and continuing to invest in the Integrated Care Hub.”

Despite the fact that the City of Kingston has made significant investments in recent years to improve access to shelter space, Paterson seemed concerned about the challenges associated with the sorts of low-barrier shelters which Valente stressed the need for in his ruling. “Low-barrier shelter spaces are far more challenging, and they are very expensive to provide. If municipalities were required to provide low-barrier shelter spaces without funding from upper levels of government, this would have a major impact on city budgets, including here in Kingston.”

Kingston City Council recently voted to declare a mental health and addiction crisis in the city, underscoring the need for shelters that accommodate individuals with a wide range of addictions and other mental health concerns, which current shelters are not always equipped to handle.

While Paterson expressed concern regarding the potential economic burden low-barrier shelters could place on the City of Kingston, King’s Town District Councillor Gregory Ridge seemed enthusiastic about Valente’s ruling. “I’m heartened to see the ruling from the Ontario Superior Court of Justice regarding Waterloo’s plans for its encampment. This ruling will have far-reaching effects on how municipalities throughout Ontario approach encampments and plan and provide shelters.”

“The ruling touches on current inadequacies around [the] accessibility of existing spaces and how providing a set number of spaces alone is not sufficient grounds for relocation of encampment inhabitants. These are some criticisms that have been shared by local community advocates and several members of Council, including myself,” added Ridge.

The rookie councillor, who has been a vocal advocate for Kingston’s unhoused population, praised staff for their work while pointing to areas where improvements are still needed. “[City staff] have done admirable work creating new shelter spaces in such a short period of time… I hope that this ruling adds the positive direction needed for future planning to address the accessibility of shelter spaces for those who suffer [from] acute mental health and substance use issues. The inhabitants of the encampment need to be directly consulted to see what supports can be provided that will be acceptable and accessible for them.” 

Like Paterson, Ridge did express some concern about how the low-barrier shelters would be paid for, and he called on the provincial government to step up and offer additional funding. “These services will not be possible without additional funding from the province. Controlled substance treatment services are expensive and require partnerships [between] municipalities and the province to be successful. I hope the province sees this ruling and realizes they need to step up to aid municipalities in supporting our most vulnerable.” 

While I think it’s too soon to know what the implications are for Kingston, I think the ruling highlights the need for low-barrier shelters and provincial investment in wrap-around health care services.”

– Councillor Brandon Tozzo

Kingscourt-Rideau District Councillor Brandon Tozzo echoed Ridge’s sentiments, highlighting the need for additional funding from the provincial government. “I’m hoping the City gets additional resources from the provincial government to provide these spaces and, hopefully, transitional housing and health care services for our citizens experiencing homelessness,” Tozzo said. “To be blunt, I’ve felt like we’re managing band-aids, and I’m tired of being a band-aid manager when there are actual solutions to the housing and homelessness crisis.”

It remains to be seen whether last week’s ruling in Waterloo will have any direct impact on the City of Kingston’s handling of the Belle Park encampment. At a meeting on Tuesday, Jan. 10, 2023, Kingston City Council voted to pause evictions from the Belle Park encampment until March. Councillors now have just over one month to consult with City staff and determine how to proceed in light of the recent developments.

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