It could be a case of now you see them, now you don’t, if politicians in BC have their way.
Vancouver civil rights activists are raising red flags about provincial legislation they fear could force homeless people into shelters against their will.
The Assistance to Shelter Act is nothing more than a cynical strategy to force the poor off the streets during the Olympics before the courts can strike the legislation down, Pivot Legal Society alleges.
BC housing minister Rich Coleman has said the proposal is intended to give police and others the power to forcibly take people to shelters only during extreme weather alerts.
Once at the shelter, people would be introduced to an outreach worker. They would then be free to go, even if they choose to return to the streets, Coleman says.
Pivot doesn’t buy it.
“This legislation represents a return to the vagrancy laws of the 19th century, which saw people criminalized simply for being poor and having nowhere to go,” says Pivot’s housing-campaign lawyer, Laura Track.
Further, she says, the proposed act does not address what happens if police cannot find available shelter space for an individual, nor does it mandate the creation of new shelter spaces.
Shane Simpson, an NDP MLA from British Columbia, says the bill affects all marginalized sectors of the population.
“It simply will not deal with the issue it purports to address and will simply hurt the people it purports to help,” he says. “It will push more marginalized people into less-safe sections of the city.”
The gay community has long criticized measures like this one, since gay bars, hookers and hustlers tend to get shafted during clean-up efforts. Queers were especially targeted in the lead-up to the Montreal Olympics in 1976.
Rev Ric Matthews of the First United Church in the Downtown Eastside says the Assistance to Shelter Act is an abuse of human rights and is based on coercion.
“We need resources that allow us to meet people where they are, not to take them to where we are,” he says.
Track says the legislation is hardly surprising given a past history of Olympic host cities attempting to hide the poor.
“As a city and a province, we should all be truly disappointed to see the Vancouver 2010 Olympics going exactly the same way,” Track says.
During the 2003 visit of the Olympic bid evaluation team — before Vancouver was awarded the Games — the team was kept away from areas like the poverty-stricken Downtown Eastside.
According to Pivot, the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta saw approximately 9,000 homeless people arrested in the months leading up to the Games and shunted up to 300 kilometres out of the city for the two weeks of the event.