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Vancouver council opposes Assistance to Shelter Act

Critics say the act will force the homeless off the streets

 Vancouver city council has added its voice to the chorus condemning the provincial Assistance to Shelter Act.

Civil rights activists say the two-week-old provincial legislation will force homeless people into shelters against their will.

The 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.

Lesbian city councillor Ellen Woodsworth introduced a motion to condemn the bylaw Dec 3. She says she’s heard from people from across the social spectrum who find the law questionable.

Gay city councillor Tim Stevenson agrees.

“This law has been a mistake,” Stevenson says.

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 law 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.

Councillors sat in stunned silence as Jason Fleury addressed them.

His sister, Mona Wilson, lived in the Downtown Eastside. Her head was found in a freezer at convicted serial killer Robert Pickton’s Port Coquitlam farm.

He says all aboriginal people hear from politicians are lies while things get worse on the Downtown Eastside.

“It’s crazy. It’s insane,” he says. “There’s a time bomb in our community and it’s going to go off. We’re sick and tired of the greed.”

The provincial NDP has also condemned the law. In a Dec 1 letter to council, Vancouver-Mount Pleasant MLA Jenny Kwan questions the timing of the bill with the Olympics two months away.

Kwan says shelters are already full, leading to speculation that the homeless will be removed from the city.

“Our caucus believes this is a regressive piece of legislation that will do more harm than good,” Kwan writes.

Vancouver-West End MLA Spencer Herbert says the homeless situation needs to be solved with housing, not by criminalizing the poor.

He takes issue with Coleman’s assertion that the woman on Davie St could have been saved had she gone into a shelter.

“Had such a law been in place then, there would have been no place for her anyway as the shelter was full and they didn’t take buggies,” Herbert says.

Police officers are “not social workers nor should they have to be,” he says, adding, “We need better addiction services.”

Kwan believes the Assistance to Shelter Act is a violation of the Olympic Inner City Inclusion Statement.

In the bid process, the bid committee (VANOC’s predecessor) issued a statement committing to help maintain delivery of health and social services to inner-city residents during the Winter Games, and to public health issues, including a comprehensive alcohol and drug strategy.

Mayor Gregor Robertson says the city needs help from all government partners to address the issue of homelessness effectively.

Pivot has said the legislation is hardly surprising given a past history of Olympic host cities attempting to hide their poor.

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.