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.
The bill’s introduction was in part spurred by the January burning death of a homeless woman trying to keep warm in a makeshift shelter on Davie St. It’s believed the woman started the fire with a candle she was using for heat.
Housing and Social Development 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 an available shelter space for an individual, nor does it mandate the creation of new shelter spaces.
NDP MLA Shane Simpson says the bill impacts all marginalized sectors of the population.
“It simply will not deal with the issue it purports to address and simply hurt the people it purports to help,” he says. “It will push more marginalized people into less safe sections of the city.”
Simpson’s comments echo concerns raised earlier this summer during the 25th anniversary of the film Hookers on Davie about the city bylaw that moved prostitutes out of the West End into other sections of the city such as the Downtown Eastside.
Rev Ric Matthews of the First United Church at Main and Hastings 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.
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.
During the 2003 visit of the Olympic bid evaluation team – before Vancouver was awarded the Games – the team was kept away from areas such as the poverty-stricken Downtown Eastside.
The evaluation team needed to reach the Pacific Coliseum from Canada Place. Its buses went down Hastings to Victory Square and then detoured around the Downtown Eastside to Clark Dr, where the buses returned to Hastings.