Abbotsford, B.C. homeless group suing city over chicken manure dump

Steve Mertl
National Affairs Contributor
Daily Brew
Abbotsford, B.C. homeless group suing city over chicken manure dump

I confess I'd be uncomfortable if homeless people set up camp in a park near my house but I'd draw the line on my city declaring open season on them.

That appears to be what happened in Abbotsford, a bustling city of 141,000 about 40 minutes east of Vancouver. Residents of the tent camp across the street from a Salvation Army centre say they've been pepper-sprayed, had tents destroyed and, in a final indignity, found chicken poop spread over the site to make it uninhabitable.

Now the homeless are fighting back the way any red-blooded Canadian would; they're going to court.

The Canadian Press reports the Pivot Legal Society, which regularly clashes with authorities on behalf of residents of Vancouver's Downtown Eastside, is filing claims for compensation for property lost or damaged in the anti-homeless offensive.

"We've tried to sit around and talk and we've tried to ask and nothing's happening and we're sick and tired of waiting and obviously, they need a kick in the [butt] to get moving and that's what we're doing," Doug Smith, who wants the city to pay for his destroyed tent, told CP.

[ Related: B.C. city apologizes for rousting homeless with chicken manure ]

Lawyer D.J. Larkin, with the Pivot Legal Society, is filing small-claims suits on behalf of residents who've lost property, CP reported. She is also preparing a human rights complaint covering other residents of the homeless camp, alleging they were victims of harassment and discrimination.

“They are looking for a human rights tribunal to say, ‘yes, homeless people need to be respected and protected the same way anyone else is in the community,’ ” Larkin told the Globe and Mail.

Larkin told the Globe one client claims the city's attack on the camp resulted in the destruction of a tent worth $700.

"That’s his home, that’s where he lives – that was destroyed,” Larkin said.

“Another client indicated that he was asked to move along, because the city didn’t want him sleeping where he was sleeping, and he agreed to move along. But while he was moving his belongings – he couldn’t carry it all at once – the city came in and threw everything out.”

Others allege police used bear spray on them and their belongings, she said.

[ Related: Terrace homeless man burned in vodka robbery ]

Abbotsford City Manager George Murray apologized and took full responsibility last month after word got out via a blog post from homeless advocate James Breckenridge that city workers had spread chicken manure on the camp site.

But internal emails have surfaced the attempt to roust the homeless from the site wasn't a rogue operation. The Abbotsford News reported internal emails reveal several city departments were involved in the plan to bomb the camp with chicken manure.

Surprisingly, the adjacent Sally Ann centre may also have known what the city was up to, according to the News.

CP reported residents of the neighbourhood near the homeless camp had been complaining about the occupants' behaviour. One woman said people were sleeping on her lawn and using her yard as a toilet.

Abbotsford Police Chief Bob Ridge has asked the Office of the Police Complaint Commissioner to investigate his officers' actions, saying his department doesn't sanction officers damaging personal property.

[ Related: Terrace homeless man burned in vodka robbery ]

Smith, who became homeless two years ago after a nerve disease made him unable to work, said some forget that the homeless are people.

"These guys, it's their worst time of their lives, they're down to their lowest and you're going to kick them and you're not going to give them a hand?" he told CP. "We don't want a hand out. A hand up would be great."

The incidents sparked a debate over the city's commitment to helping the homeless instead of just trying to move them along.

Abbotsford Pastor Jesse Wegenast, whose group 5 and 2 Ministries is backing the homeless's legal moves, wrote in Abbotsford Today that the city is facing a "crisis of conscience."

"There is a palpable amount of anger, sadness, and frustration among many individuals who live on the margins of society in Abbotsford," he wrote. "The actions of both city officials and the police department, coupled with the inaction of most everyone else to advocate is the reason.

"Abbotsford, caught between small-town charms and big-city issues, seems to be having an identity crisis, and ought to be having a crisis of conscience."