Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Forced shelter law an overwhelmingly bad idea

The government's bumbling plan to let police drag homeless people to shelters should alarm Liberal supporters.
It certainly alarmed anyone knowledgeable about B.C.'s homeless crisis.
Not because of civil liberties' concerns, though they are real. The bigger problem is that Housing Minister Rich Coleman's Assisting to Shelter Act would create a raft of new problems for everyone involved - and do little good.
And while focusing on a new and unenforceable law, the government would be ignoring measures that could make a real difference for the hardcore homeless.
Coleman says the law is a compassionate response to the death of a homeless woman on a cold night in Vancouver last winter. Police and social workers had unsuccessfully urged her to spend the night in a shelter. She died of burns after a candle set her possessions on fire. Critics suggest the law is intended to allow people to be swept off the street during the Olympics.
The issue isn't compassion. It's competence and the government's apparent lack of understanding of homelessness, despite years of talk.
Government working papers indicate the original goal was to draft a law that would allow police to forcibly remove people from the streets if they were at risk in extreme weather, taking them to a shelter or jail.
When the B.C. Civil Liberties Association released the leaked documents, Coleman said the plan had evolved. Police would be empowered to forcibly take people to shelters, but the homeless would then be allowed walk away if they wished. At least shelter staff could talk to them, he said.
Let's count the problems.
Police would be saddled with a difficult responsibility. They would have to decide whether a person was at risk. If officers did opt to drag someone to a shelter against his will, they would face a potential fight.
And if the person refused shelter, or the shelters were full, then what? Police couldn't leave someone whose life they had judged at risk without facing later criticism if something bad happened. Would they be expected to spend the shift driving around looking for a shelter with space, with an increasingly angry prisoner in the back seat.
Shelter staff - already overloaded - would have to spend time with angry people, who were there against their will. If they did talk a person inside, more problems would be likely,
And the homeless people would face the prospect of being taken into custody by police and dragged to a shelter they had no intention of entering.
If they refused, they could be miles from their home turf, where they knew how to survive a cold night, with no way of getting back If they had created a camp for the night, or had their possessions in a cart, those would likely be gone by the time they made their way back.
Which means, of course, that some would risk confrontations with police in order to stay put.
Coleman's approach leaves all those problems unresolved.
And it's based on the fallacy that people who choose to sleep in an alley or quiet corner are all incapable of making sound decisions.
There are rational reasons for not going into a shelter. Sleeping on a mat on the floor in a room with dozens of other sick, snoring, talking and often difficult people is not what most of us would choose except as a last resort. Some people fear thefts; others have enemies in shelters.
Few shelters have storage for carts and possessions, or allow dogs or couples. People would rather make do outdoors than give up a pet, or everything they have left in the world, for a night indoors.
The way to increase safety is to address those issues, as a handful of shelters already have.
If the goal is humanitarian, fund cart lock-up and shelters that allow couples to stay together. Don't send police out; hire more outreach teams, which have proven highly effective.
Coleman should know all that by now. And that's what is most worrying about his defence of an ineffective, even destructive, new law.


Anonymous said...

You forgot to mention the assanine concept of the public purse covering the wages of at least two cops per apprehended homeless "client delivery". It costs taxpayers about $150.00 per hour of work per officer employed (wages and benefits). So, if it only consumed an hour for each of a pair of officers, (and that I would argue is a conservative estimate since we should expect that related paper work and other documentation would be kept on file), then the cost to deliver a single homeless person to a shelter would be in excess of the cost to house that same individual in the penthouse suite at The Hotel Vancouver, with a champagne breakfast thrown in. Would it be un-parliamentary to describe Coleman as disingenuous? How about a preposterous boob?


Anonymous said...

Is there anything at all that Rich Coleman hasn't screwed up?

Kam Lee said...
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