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A Backwards Approach to Homelessness

With the Olympics approaching in just a few months, it’s hard to see what noticeable difference the province has made helping homelessness in Vancouver. It’s true there are some new shelters, but many of the units of affordable housing promised since the Olympic bid aren’t even under construction yet, and with the bloated waiting lists for B.C. Housing it’ll be an uphill battle to quickly help a large number of people find safe, affordable housing.

And if you want a lesson in backwards logic on how to deal with the homelessness crisis in Vancouver, look no further than the provincial government.

Housing and Social Development Minister Rich Coleman confirmed the government hopes to pass legislation that would allow police and other officials to forcibly remove homeless people from the streets during extreme weather in order to “take the person to the shelter, connect them with an outreach worker, show them that it is warm and there is a meal there for them, and let them make a choice.”

Earlier, the B.C. Civil Liberties Association released leaked government memos that showed the government was debating allowing police to hold homeless people in jail overnight if they refuse to be escorted to a shelter during extreme weather conditions, although Coleman insists the punitive elements of the memos will be removed from legislation.

"We can't compel people to stay," Coleman told the Vancouver Sun. "If they go back on the street, that's their choice." He’s right at least about that, argues the BCCLA. Any legislation that would impinge on homeless people’s right to travel and live where they choose would likely fail under a Charter challenge.

But it doesn’t seem like the government ministers are all on the same page on this one. Attorney General Mike de Jong posed this question in an interview with the Sun: "Should ... freedom to choose include the right to be on the street and die when there are beds and facilities available?" In addition to taking a fairly paternalistic view, it seems like he’s making a pretty big assumption that beds and facilities are always available, a fact that organizers in the DTES like Wendy Pedersen of the Carnegie Community Action Project question.

“With two of the HEAT shelters now closed some people who need it can’t find a place to sleep. It’s a mistake to penalize them for that,” Pedersen contends. Even according to its own numbers, the government has a long way to go. According to a B.C. Housing report in 2008, homeless shelters in B.C. turned away people over 40,000 times.

Pedersen also argues that this type of legislation could put homeless women in more dangerous situations.

“If women are out of sight and have to hide, they’re more likely to be victimized. Women might be more likely to make sketchy deals to sleep inside,” she says. The 2008 B.C. Housing report showed women and children were turned away from shelters 16,000 times and a homelessness count in Vancouver the same year showed that while most of the homeless are men, the proportion of women is rising fast. Pedersen and others worry that if homeless women can’t get into shelters and know they’ll be picked up by police, they’ll sleep in riskier outdoor locations or go home with unsafe men.

Overall what we’re seeing is a backwards approach to homelessness. And even if we do get a watered-down version of the legislation with no punitive measures, there’s a lot about this thing that just doesn’t make sense.

First, if the Liberals don’t intend to give the legislation teeth, why bother drafting it in the first place? Police and outreach workers already have the right to make what they see as helpful suggestions. Sun columnist Miro Cernetig also points out that there are already legal options that allow people to be removed from the streets in specific situations.

Second, this approach is so logically backward that it’s like trying to close the barn doors after you’ve been chasing the horses out of the barn in huge numbers for eight years. After years of cutting funding to shelters, decreasing welfare rates, cutting funding to domestic violence programs, and sitting by while B.C. has the highest child poverty rate in the country for 6 years running, the government still thinks the problem is the people, not the system.

Pedersen thinks they could have better priorities: “They have cash in a $250-million housing endowment fund that’s just sitting there. They could have had more interim housing measures. They can’t close shelters and then penalize people for being homeless.”

We’ve got just four months before the world comes to Vancouver. Let’s hope Rich Coleman learns to start thinking straight soon.

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