Sunday, June 14, 2009

Old West-style justice system strands binner in Oak Bay

Hear the one about the homeless guy stranded in Oak Bay?
It’d make a pretty good opening line for a joke. But there’s nothing funny about it in reality, seeing as the man who it happened to had no access to food or shelter for 10 days because of a court order banishing him from the City of Victoria.
The courts routinely use “red zone” orders for drug charges to keep people away from certain areas where drugs are bought and sold. The red zone in our region is typically downtown Victoria - roughly the area bounded by Cook, Store, Belleville and Discovery streets.
But binner Ron Beland got hit with the red-zone order of all time last month. Charged with assault after a fight with another homeless man, Beland found himself ordered out of the entire City of Victoria until his next court appearance 10 days later.
Seeing as the region’s only services and supports for homeless people are in the City of Victoria, that left Beland to dig through dumpsters for food and sleep in an Oak Bay park for the duration. Lucky thing it all happened during a stretch of good weather; had it happened during winter, it might have been “a death sentence,” notes Beland.
“Everything I need - everything - is in the downtown,” said Beland. “I showed the Oak Bay cops my order, and they were like, ‘What??!’ They can’t even take me to the drunk tank, because Oak Bay doesn’t have one and I’m not allowed in Victoria.”
Crown counsel spokesman Robin Baird was unaware of Beland’s case and surprised to hear of the extent of the order, although he recalled another time when a judge ordered a Nanaimo man to stay south of the 49th parallel.
“It kind of smacks of the old westerns - taking someone to the outskirts of town,” admitted Baird. “I think that’s too broad a brush for the court to be using. [The justice system] bears the onus at every stage to show that the restrictions on a person’s liberty are not being unduly infringed upon.”
Oak Bay Mayor Chris Causton hadn’t heard about Beland’s banishment either. He was concerned both for Beland’s well-being and the risk to Oak Bay citizens, seeing as Beland was charged with assault.
“I’ve never heard of anything like this,” said Causton. “I don’t know what the backup is at times like this, but we don’t have any services.”
John Howard Society executive director Dave Johnson said he’s been noticing “red-zone creep” in the court orders of his organization’s clients, both in the reach of the zones and the types of offences the orders are used for. It’s not uncommon to see red-zone orders nowadays that extend all the way to the John Howard neighbourhood of Rock Bay, said Johnson - meaning a client risks breaching a court order just by coming in for support.
“But I’ve never heard of anything like this,” says Johnson of Beland’s order. “The downtown red zone at least had boundaries that kind of made sense. Being compelled to reside in Oak Bay - well, that’s interesting. It wouldn’t surprise me if police helped him relocate to Saanich.”
Defence lawyer Tom Merino deals with people like Beland all the time through his legal-aid work. He didn’t know the Beland case personally but said he’s not surprised by it, given the court’s ever-more desperate attempts to manage problems beyond its realm of expertise.
“I find these kinds of orders offensive in the extreme,” said Merino. “I understand the frustration of those in power, trying to use the limited tools available to them. But this doesn’t work. You can’t solve social problems through the courts.”
People can return to court to argue that an order is too onerous, said Merino. But they certainly can’t count on having a lawyer represent them, what with ongoing cuts to legal aid.
Had Beland breached his City of Victoria ban by sneaking downtown for a meal, for instance, he wouldn’t have qualified for legal aid. “Category one” offences such as breaches were delisted as a legal-aid category in B.C. two months ago.
Last we talked, Beland was surviving his 10-day banishment with a little help from his friends - two Victoria binners whose daily bottle routes take them to the Oak Bay border. They shared food, sherry and companionship with Beland, who wasn’t used to the quiet Oak Bay scene.
“I have to get back downtown. I need the services,” said Beland. “It’s also the money spot for a binner like me.”

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