Do we need a law that allows police to force homeless people into shelters when the weather gets so cold they will be in danger if they spend the night on the street?
Tough question. Stand back ma’am. I’m a columnist and I’m trained to answer tough questions.
Let’s start with some background. When I was in Winnipeg — where it routinely goes below –30 C at night — I followed the Main Street Project’s patrol for several nights as it checked the haunts of the homeless.
It was cold enough to freeze water molecules in the air, yet there were always people out there, preferring the frigid quiet and isolation to the noisy warmth of a shelter. Workers would try to convince people to come in from the cold, but mostly they were just making sure no one froze to death.
Fast forward to today, as Housing Minister Rich Coleman prepares legislation to force people indoors during the much more clement winter nights in Vancouver. Warmer, yes, but I doubt anyone likes spending the night outdoors when its –7 C or when that Vancouver blend of snow/rain/sleet is pelting down.
Choose to believe this legislation is not inspired by a desire to prevent ugly incidents or clean up the street during the Olympics, but is prompted instead by a genuine sense of responsibility for those souls who won’t come in from the cold.
Still, they will not, and if you try to force them, they’ll go deeper into the shadows. Or they’ll resist, and you know where that could lead. Or they’ll go to the shelter, walk away when no one is looking, and have to be apprehended again. It will be tough to enforce.
On top of the enforcement problems, the refuseniks are protected by the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Coleman’s attempt to trump the charter and take people into shelters against their will is bound to be challenged in court. People have a right, like it or not, to sleep on the street.
So critics of this scheme, such as the B.C. Civil Liberties Association, are right. But what happens when someone dies from exposure or burns to death trying to stay warm? Who will take the responsibility? The B.C. Civil Liberties Association? I don’t think so.
If it’s a human right to live on the street, it’s a human right to die on the street. And if you think about that for five minutes, really think about it, you’ll have some sympathy for Rich Coleman.
Or if you really care, maybe one night this winter, when the temperature dips below zero, you’ll volunteer to help prevent someone from spending their last night on the street.