Homing-in on the Homeless

I have had a number of responses to my earlier article on homelessness and the BC Government’s proposal to empower police to detain the homeless for their own good. Thank you, in particular, to those who offered their own counterpoints.

A couple of these counterpoints are in the nature of “letting the homeless die in the streets with their rights intact is a mistake,” or that it’s not “all that different from requiring a 5 year old who is a Jehovah’s Witness to accept a life-saving blood transfusion,” or from “the Public Guardian and Trustee’s office from handling the assets of a person who is found to be mentally incompetent.”

These are good points. (I’m not going to touch religious freedom at this point, which would lead us off on wild tangents.)

The first point, whether to save their lives or respect their rights, is a false choice. There are other avenues available here. There is, for example: resolving the reasons someone refuses to go to a shelter, or perhaps offering alternative assistance, such as warmer winter clothing, blankets, or the like. We don’t have to go straight to the strong-arm. For the second, when we’re dealing with children we have different options, given that in general we don’t recognize children as being competent to make sophisticated life-critical decisions. But this is not so with regard to adults.

Many sane and competent people do things that other people think are dangerous, even life-threatening. Sometimes they are. I think, for example, that mountain climbing is nuts. But that’s just me. People die, falling from great heights. I don’t get it. Same with skydiving — jumping out of a perfectly good airplane, indeed! Whether it’s scuba diving, hang-gliding, skiing, bicycling, or you name it, people die by misadventure in these activities where otherwise they arguably would not. The same argument that applies to homeless people in the cold, the very same, can be applied here, making all of these activities, and then some, illegal.

When the state sweeps aside our free choices “for our own good” substituting their own judgement for ours, it really means that we have one less right. One of the hard corollaries of free choice is the freedom to make mistakes and to suffer the consequences.

But there seems to be some argument that the whole rights question is avoided here because “they wouldn’t be forced to go in.” It is a peculiar argument, and entirely empty.

Once you can forcibly remove people (from where they might well have some mean comfort) on the basis that you think their circumstances are just not “suitable,” to a place you like better, for them of course, which might well be miles away, it is pompous and disingenuous to claim that “it’s OK because, well,they don’t have to stay!”

If they indeed don’t want to stay, there they are, on foot, possibly miles away from their meagre “homes,” and expected to make their own way back on foot through the cold. And remember that this is all predicated on extreme weather. It is not a real option, and arguably puts them at even greater risk than had we done nothing.

But even then, they have no right any more to be out on the street in that weather. They can “for their own good” be picked up, again and again, on their way back, or after they get there and start to settle back in. Rather than a tool to help the homeless, this can very easily become just another way to roust them and get them to move along, out of “my backyard.”

The very people who would be forced to comply here, the people who don’t want to move into a state-prescribed shelter, will move deeper into the woods farther off the beaten track, away from help. They’ll hide from the police and outreach workers who as facilitators and counsellors have a sporting chance to reach them, but as possible forcible detainers will simply drive them away.

There are lots of reasons people don’t want to go into shelters. Sometimes it’s because they perceive them as having too prevalent availability of drugs. Sometimes it’s because they have pets that they can’t bring along. Sometimes it’s fear of their own safety in such shelters, or of being robbed of what little they have in the darkness, in the night, surrounded by so many people. Sometimes it’s a heightened intolerance to the noises, or the mere presence of so many other people. Sometimes, even, it’s to remain close to where they might have a job, however insufficient it might be to support a place to live. Or any of many other reasons.

Do we just blithely sweep away these real concerns without any respect, as inconsequential to us?

If we go on to say that such people who disagree, however rightly or wrongly, with our assessment of their danger, are by this fact alone not mentally competent and should therefore be forced to comply, besides being highly arrogant, this begs the whole question.

It should also be noted at this point that if there is a plausible argument for ignoring the judgement of individuals on the presumption that they’re not competent to make such a decision in circumstances we consider life-threatening, it is completely contradicted when we drop them off in front of the shelter with the right to decide whether or not to go in. If they are competent to decide whether or not to go in, in circumstances at least as bad as those in which they were picked-up (except that we’ve likely made them worse) it follows that they were competent when we picked them up in the first place. So: either they’re not competent and they cannot then be left to make the allegedly life or death decision about whether to go in, or they are competent and we shouldn’t be dragging them by force to the door of the shelter.

But even so, if they are indeed not mentally competent, it is not properly the job of a police officer or an outreach worker to decide this; we have legal processes for this, with checks and balances, and ultimately it is a job for a court.

To the extent that we do, indeed, have mentally incompetent people abandoned to the streets, and we do, this is clear evidence that we’ve failed elsewhere. “Saving the Homeless” is a red-herring here. This is not a problem of homelessness, or of stepping in to save the lives of the homeless. Before we erode our rights in general and take draconian action to make up for our failings elsewhere, let’s deal with those failings. Elsewhere. Let’s fix the system where it’s broken, rather than kluge shabby solutions only to the follow-on consequences.

Homeless people do have problems. Sometimes that’s why they’re homeless, and sometimes because they’re homeless. But so do we all. If we truly want to help the homeless we need to treat them with dignity and respect (which this most certainly does not.) And we need to address the problems earlier, and all along the way.

When the next proposal for a social housing complex, or subsidized housing, or other affordable housing option comes up in our respective neighbourhoods, or a halfway house or detox centre, we need to stand up and support it, not insist that it go to somebody-else’s backyard.

Let’s also bring back funding for the Coquitlam permanent shelter; this would have allowed outreach people to amplify their current good works, and entice (not force) people into a warm place, with a warm meal for up to 30 days, and get to know them. And when they know them, and know their stories, they can help them to find a way back. They have a good track record of getting people off the streets on a long-term, even permanent, basis.

We also need to encourage our elected representatives to put the money back into mental health programs, and drug treatment and rehabilitation (and we need to take a long hard look at our whole approach to drugs.) Far more of our representatives than you would think would very much like to do far more than they now think they can. They need to know that the public supports real action here.

But short-circuiting the problem like this will solve nothing, and will very likely save nobody in the end. While elevating the state as the great care-giver and carrying on the steady erosion of our rights, it just lets us sit back and rest on our laurels in the reassuring belief that we’ve covered off the problem, and don’t have to do anything real or meaningful to solve it.

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