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Police reluctant to force homeless into shelters

'If there is over-resistance, we will back away and disengage': Chu

 The Vancouver Police Department (VPD) seems reluctant to force homeless people into shelters this winter, despite the new provincial Assistance to Shelter Act, which gives them the power to do just that.

Critics of the legislation, passed last month by the Liberal government in Victoria, say the law would allow police to force homeless people into shelters against their will.

Chief Constable Jim Chu says that’s not going to happen.

“If there is over-resistance, we will back away and disengage,” Chu says. “They will be allowed to stay where they are.

“The intent [of the policy] is to help the homeless and that’s what we’re going to do,” Chu says, adding that police will provide blankets and other assistance to anyone who refuses shelter.

The VPD already has existing legislation it can use to help people who are suffering from a mental illness, heavily intoxicated, under the age of 19, or incapacitated, Chu notes.

“He’s right,” says David Eby of the BC Civil Liberties Association (BCCLA). “I think this policy reflects how useless this act is in a real world in encouraging someone in the street to go to a shelter.”

If someone refuses shelter and an officer believes that there is a risk of imminent serious injury or death, officers can offer “further assistance” in the form of “minimal non-forceful touching,” Chu notes, comparing the non-forceful touch to the supporting hand one would use to help an elderly person cross the street. But if the person still refuses to go to a shelter, police will back off, he says.

Eby wonders why police would need to touch someone. “It sounds like they’re trying to check off the box with the ‘we’re trying to use this new act’ without using this new act,” he says.

Lesbian city councillor Ellen Woodsworth applauds Chu’s approach to enforcing the new legislation. “Good for Chief Jim Chu,” she says. “He really understands why people are on the streets.”

Last week, Woodsworth told city council she’s heard from people from across the social spectrum who find the law questionable. “The Assistance to Shelter Act does nothing. It jeopardizes people on the street. It terrorizes them. It’s a vicious, vicious act,” she says.

Woodsworth says Housing Minister Rich Coleman should step down.

When the act was proposed by the Liberal government, both the BCCLA and Pivot Legal Society said it was an infringement on peoples’ rights.

Pivot lawyer Laura Track has called the law a “cynical strategy by the Liberal government to force poor people off the streets for the Olympics before courts strike the legislation down.”

Eby says Chu’s statement could be seen as the police department sending a message to the community that “we’re not going to be clearing the streets for the Olympics.”

Chu says the act is expected to be in force later this week. He says the policy will need to be approved by the city police board Dec 9.