Assistance to Shelter Act
Last week we learned that the BC Government is preparing an “Assistance to Shelter Act”. The proponent of the Act, Minister Rich Coleman, says that the bill proposes to allow police powers to compel people sleeping on the streets under conditions of extreme weather to go to a shelter. If all shelters were full, people would be taken to jail.
This legislation was first proposed last January following the death of a woman known to the public as Tracey who was living at the corner of Davie and Hornby Street in Vancouver. The night she died, she was approached three times by different police officers and each time refused to be taken from her makeshift home to a shelter. She told the officers and outreach workers she did not want to leave her shopping cart (her life possessions) behind.
Later this past year, the City of Vancouver developed the HEAT shelters which did accommodate some people and their shopping carts; still the majority of shelters do not accommodate carts at this time. On the night Tracey died, she told us she wanted a home that would accommodate not only her physical body but her life possessions. I might be pressed to say Tracey told the people she spoke to she wanted a home.
According to the Minister, many people feel the State has the responsibility to protect people who are not able to protect themselves. In interviews, Minister Coleman has repeatedly emphasized that under the draft legislation, persons experiencing homelessness would still be provided both the opportunity and the right to walk away once they’d seen the shelter and spoken to an outreach worker. But leaked government memos provided by David Eby from the BC Civil Liberties Association and quoted in the Tyee (http://thetyee.ca/News/2009/09/21/HomelessLaw suggest that the person experiencing homelessness picked up by the police could be held against their will and presumably without their possessions.
The bill will have to go through the standard process that any government legislation must go through; so perhaps it is unfair to comment but, on the other hand, it might be useful to think ahead and consider the implications of the Act. There are legal, humanitarian and logistical perspectives that need to be considered.
From a legal perspective, some have commented that a bill that legislates the right for police to pick up people, who have not broken any laws, would be against the Charter of Rights and Freedom. Others have indicated we already have a Mental Health Act that enables police to remove individuals from the street. Consistently, I have noticed that people misunderstand that the threshold for committal is not that the person is a danger to self or other but rather that the person has a mental disorder, their health is at imminent risk of deterioration and they are in imminent need of treatment.
I’d say we already have legislation that would allow the police to apprehend people experiencing homelessness who are making poor decisions by staying in the streets in extreme weather but we don’t use it because, when the police take people to the hospital for committal under the Mental Health Act, there is “no room at the inn”. In reality, the threshold for admission is much higher than the Mental Health Act might theoretically propose. And, the reason for this high threshold for hospital admission is that government has consistently failed to deliver mental health and addiction services in sufficient quantity to meet the need.
From a humanitarian perspective, some argue the State has a responsibility to intervene when people are putting their lives at risk. In interviews, Minister Coleman made specific references to the stress of the three police officers who woke up to realize that if they had had more power, they could have prevented the death of Tracey. Many people I have spoken to want people experiencing homeless to be somewhere safe and warm. One person said it offended her sense of humanity to see such poverty and ill health on our streets. It also at times threatened her own safety and security when she was out at night. Vancouver streets used to be a safe place but this is no longer a reality in some circumstances. But she also understood by not providing more affordable and supportive housing we have brought this on ourselves as a community.
From a logistical perspective, it is difficult to understand just how the proposed legislation might work. There are currently an estimated 2000 people on Vancouver’s streets. Even with the addition of the approximately 500 extreme weather shelter beds there still would not be enough spaces. Vancouver is also unique among North American cities in having a high percentage of people who are defined as chronically homeless and who have been out on the streets or in shelters for more than a year. People experiencing chronic homelessness are more likely to have mental health and addiction problems. They belong in hospital not in a shelter where their symptomatic behaviors are often the source of derision and ridicule by other people experiencing homelessness.
There are an estimated 2000 individuals sleeping on the streets in Vancouver and another 1000 sleeping in shelters. Shelter workers have expressed concern about dealing with people who don’t necessarily want to be there. Homeless people themselves have spoken out about not wanting to go to shelters due to previous experiences of sexual and physical assault in a shelter. And finally, if we were listening to Tracey we would have heard her say that she wouldn’t want to leave her spot on the street without her shopping cart … something that is possible only for a limited number of people under current circumstances.
So where does this leave the citizens of Vancouver who care about this issue? If they had studied strategies to address homelessness in other communities, I think they would say, don’t settle for more temporary solutions. We need to focus on the objective of ending homelessness not managing it. The more we spend time worrying about temporary solutions to a vexing social problem, the absence of affordable housing and mental health and addiction treatment, the less likely we are to move beyond temporary solutions such as increasing shelter beds or “housing” people in jail. Furthermore, they would remind us that we need to tell our politicians that we want to keep our eyes on the prize: more supportive housing units and more treatment. This is the challenge that a government, which feels it is working hard and certainly has done more than previous administrations in this area, would assume. We have no reason to be complacent. The job is not yet done. If Minister Coleman has a long-term plan as many suspect he does, it would be great to learn of it and make it a public document.
In 2007, the City and the Province entered into a social housing partnership to build social housing units on 14 sites around Vancouver. Unfortunately, due to the economic downturn only four housing sites have received funding. In the meantime, the Province has invested heavily in buying up and renovating old single room occupancy hotels in the Down Town Eastside. This has been an important step in preserving housing stock. People living and working in these renovated hotels say it is night and day different from the original hotels … but we need to remember these hotels were full when they were purchased. So with some exceptions, these purchases do not represent new stock. We simply need more supportive housing. And given we have all but closed Riverview Hospital and Vancouver has not yet built its Riverview replacement beds ( a project on the books since 2001), we need more mental health and addiction beds to meet the needs of the people with significant illness living on our streets. The wait list of over 600 people for the nine month treatment program at the Burnaby Centre for Mental Health and Addictions less than one year after it opened to take 100 people at a time, tells of the extreme level of need in our City.
As for Tracey, she likely would tell us she just wanted a warm and safe place she could call home.
Nancy Hall Ph.D. Sept 24, 2009