Act introduced to force homeless to shelters

Friday, October 30th, 2009

Next month, B.C. police could have power to remove people from the street in extreme weather

Jonathan Fowlie

The Liberal government says the Assistance to Shelter Act is intended to help save the lives of the province’s most vulnerable. Photograph by: Bill Keay, Vancouver Sun

Police across British Columbia could have the power as early as next month to forcibly move homeless people to shelters during extreme weather.

On Thursday, Minister of Housing and Social Development Rich Coleman introduced the Assistance to Shelter Act, which would afford police the power to bring homeless people off the streets when an extreme weather alert is in effect.

The proposed legislation gives police power to use “reasonable force” to get people to the door of a shelter, though Coleman said that once there people will still have the right to decide whether or not they want to go inside.

After introducing the legislation, Coleman said the bill is intended to help save lives of the province’s most vulnerable, though he acknowledged that crafting the bill was a difficult balance.

“This is one of the toughest pieces of legislation I’ve worked on probably in the last eight or nine years with regards to trying to get to a balance,” Coleman said after introducing the bill Thursday morning.

Coleman added he believes the bill might be challenged in the courts, but said he welcomes that as being “healthy.”

“To be honest with you, I think Canadians have to at some point decide whether our emergency service providers, and we as a society, should have some ability to help save a life when somebody is actually putting their life at risk,” he said.

“We just think we need the tool to get them [homeless people] there [to shelters].”

David Eby, executive director of the B.C. Civil Liberties Association, raised several objections to the legislation, including a belief some people who don’t want to go to shelters will be put at greater risk because of the law.

“These people will actually hide themselves away from police if they believe they are going to be taken against their will to a homeless shelter,” he said, adding these people could end up in medical distress without being noticed by passers by or outreach workers.

New Democratic Party critic for housing Shane Simpson said the bill ignores the real problem taking place on the streets. “The bill itself accomplishes nothing that needs to be addressed here. It doesn’t deal with housing issues, it doesn’t deal with shelter issues,” he said.

“Nobody wants people out on the street in extreme weather. But I don’t think you do that in a heavy-handed fashion,” he added.

Simpson also said he believes the law could put undue pressure on police.

In a statement, Vancouver police department spokeswoman Const. Jana McGuinness said: “We share the government’s concern for the safety and well-being of the homeless. We have always taken extraordinary steps during harsh weather to ensure that they have safe and secure shelter, and this winter will be no different.”

If passed, the new law will take effect immediately.

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