Homeless Detention

The BC government’s proposal to allow detainment of homeless people in the event of declaration of extreme weather is alarming.

B.C. Housing Minister Rich Coleman has assured us that, while the legislation was not yet ready, the envisioned law would empower police to forcibly take homeless people to emergency shelters during extremely cold weather, but that “they wouldn’t be be forced to go in.”

What does it mean to force people to go to shelters but not be forced to go in? Do we drag people away, even out of whatever mean shelter they might already have on their own, to some place more acceptable (to us)? – and then rest comfortably in the smug belief it’s OK because “they don’t have to stay there?”

They’ll be quite free, apparently, to make their own way in the extreme weather conditions that predicate this whole scenario, back to where they started. (At least until the next police sweep drags them back to where we in our benign bureaucratic wisdom suppose that they would better be.)

Once people are forcibly taken to shelters, the claim that “they won’t be forced to go in” might be technically true, but is laughably vacuous.

While couched as a concern for safety, and I don’t doubt that the concern is genuine, this is big-brother government galumphing in on a high horse and trampling all over the rights of individuals.

It is not a small matter to take away the rights of our citizens, Yes, even the right to die in the cold, if that is their choice. It is a steep and slippery slope, even with the most benign and well-meaning intent.

If we justify this with the argument that for someone to decide not to go into a shelter when we think they should is proof that they are not mentally competent, apart from the soaring arrogance of that, we should really review the deficiencies in our mental-health programs that have abandoned mentally ill people to the streets. Let’s deal with mental health issues as mental health issues, not with clumsy jackboot social work.

This is a solution that solves nothing. After avoiding the underlying problems for years, we cannot bully it away by attacking the symptoms. The problems of homelessness are broad, and varied, and not so easily solved. It involves in some cases mental illness, and in some cases drugs or alcohol, but there are many other reasons for homelessness, including family problems and economic hardship. A surprising number of people are but one paycheque away from the streets, and once on the streets, it is an often insurmountable hurdle to get back.

Let us indeed extend our care and concern to the homeless. But let’s actually help them. Let us, for example, restore the provincial funding that was recently cut from the Coquitlam permanent shelter that after so many years of effort was so close in the offing. That would be a good start. It would help outreach workers, who tend to know the people and their stories, to connect with them, and to help them deal with whatever circumstances make them homeless, and indeed help them to find homes.

But on a broader front we must stand up for improved mental health funding and expanded resources for substance-abuse treatment and rehabilitation. And in our communities, we must support social and subsidized housing initiatives, and more options for affordable-housing.

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