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B.C.’s new law to give police powers to put homeless in shelters during cold

September 21st, 2009 · 47 Comments

Housing Minister Rich Coleman mused aloud last January about coming up with a law that would give authorities the power to force homeless people into shelters during cold/wet-weather snaps, if they persist in sleeping outside in spite of efforts to get them in. Now it appears his ministry is going ahead with that plan, according to e-mails that I got sent to me from various ministry staff.

The minister says he wants to at least try to do this to prevent deaths, even if groups decide to challenge it on Charter of Rights grounds. (He did clarify to me, by the way, that although police will be given the power to take people by force if necessary, though not too much force, to shelters, there will be no requirement put on shelter staff or police to keep them there.)

When I asked the minister how many people he thought this might end up being used on, he didn’t give me a number but said that it’s just “one more tool in the toolbox” that people who work in various agencies have asked him for. As has been reported many times in the past, the last homeless count found almost 1,600 people sleeping outside out of a total homeless count of 2,600. 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.

My Globe story on this is here.

The memos and e-mails I got are attached below. For obvious reasons, identifying markers have been taken off.


P.S. I heard a headline on the radio as I was driving 15 minutes ago that said the province wants to make homelessness “illegal.” Nothing I’ve seen so far suggests that anyone will be ticketed or fined or charged for being homeless. The legislation is all about giving authorities the power to force people to sleep indoors during bad weather.

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  • I’d say the prospects of ‘bad weather’ happening just before and during the games have just gone up.

  • Blaffergassted

    Attachment 2 Issue 3 just jumps out at me.
    I wonder why?

  • Will we be flushing the money to defend this initiative down the same toilet the City of Victoria used when they fought the Supreme Court ruling regarding tent cities?

  • Michael Phillips

    Seems kind of half-baked. I’m assuming that this is a glimpse into the early part of a process rather than an indication that something is definitely happening. I’m sure lots of potential Acts don’t actually get acted upon.

    It does appear to me that this would make homelessness quasi-illegal in that a police officer could order that any homeless person be forced not to be homeless and if they physically resist they’re presumably put in jail, or ticketed and if they don’t pay the ticket they’re put in jail.
    Equally, what happens if, in the obvious case, the officer drops them off at the shelter and then they walk out. Is this violating an administrative order? Because that’s illegal. Essentially shelters become de facto jails.

    What if they are compelled to go out and get drugs? Do we have enough jail space for all the homeless who need to go out periodically and get drugs, thus violating their administrative orders?

    As the emails pointed out this also opens up the constitutional problem of how homelessness can essentially be illegal if there is a shelter around with space but not illegal if there is no shelter or no space. How do you know if you are able to be put under force?

    One last thing, if we accept that a person who is homeless is putting themselves at grave risk to the point that they can be forced not to in a court order, then this conception of a duty of care to be housed is heightened tremendously upon the government itself. If we conceive that a person not being housed is at grave danger, and the continuation of this state by the individual is so harmful as to warrant a court order, why would this standard of care not apply to government, in other words, why would the government not be forced to see that all individuals are housed if the individuals themselves are expected to see that they’re all housed? It seems that if a person’s behaviour of not seeking shelter is illegally harmful against themselves, then the government not providing shelter to all would be considered illegally harmful against the homeless, although I haven’t passed the bar yet.

  • Frothingham

    Michael Phillips : When you do pass the bar, this “1984′ Law will provide you with plenty of Court time.

  • IanS

    That proposed legislation does seem fraught with potential constitutional issues. Just from a quick review of the list of items, point 5 seems particularly problematic. Seems questionable to have a provincial law which only applies in certain areas of the province.

  • So to all the people (above) who are generally opposed to this initiative by Coleman, what do you recommend to deal with the Tracey’s of this city? That is to say, those who refuse to go into a shelter (even though there may be space available for them and their buggy and dog) and subsequently set fire to themselves, or freeze outside in the cold.

    Do you agree with David Eby that they should be allowed to chose to stay out on the street where they might die, whether we like it or not?

  • spartikus

    So to all the people (above) who are generally opposed to this initiative by Coleman, what do you recommend to deal with the Tracey’s of this city?

    A system where the Tracey’s of this city aren’t on the street in the first place?

    If seems we would be designating someone mentally fit or unfit to make their own choices depending on what the weather is on any given day. That seems…arbitrary.

  • Michael:

    That’s a fair question. But it seems to me this law is essentially creating two sets of rules. One for people who have an address and one for those who don’t. Would the police have the right to send someone home from a campground in a rainstorm? Seems to me that this law would allow that. Would they be able to stop someone from sleeping outside on their own property, or force someone who won’t turn their furnace on to go to a shelter? Extreme examples to be sure, but with this law in place those scenarios might be possible right? My understanding is that mental health rules are in place to put people who can’t exercise the necessary good judgement to care for themselves into care if that’s needed. Another law isn’t necessary. A cynic might suggest that the provincial gov’t knows the law can’t survive a Charter challenge, but figures they can enact it close enough to the Olympics that it will take longer than the Games themselves to have it overthrown, at which point they’ll let it be defeated.

  • IanS


    I think all the authorities can do is make facilities available and provide opportunities for their use. I believe we do have a process in place to obtain medical certification for people who are unfit to make their own decisions, but, short of that, I don’t think the authorities should have the ability to round people up, even if it’s “for their own good”.

  • IanS

    Chris, do you really think this is an Olympic measure, designed to allow the authorities to keep “undesirables” off the street during the games?

  • Mira

    Hey Michael, sometimes I just don’t get you. How about YOU go and stay inside one of these shelters for ONE DAY! Than, let’s talk and give unrequested “advice” to others. Anyone can be an “expert” when they have no clue what they are talking about. I think this idea of forcing people against their will IS SOOOO WRONG. Provide them with a decent place to live in first! A temporary shelter is no solution.

  • Stephanie

    Bingo. I don’t think it will survive a Charter challenge. I don’t think the proposed welfare rule that denies assistance to people with out-of-province warrants will survive a Charter challenge, either. But those challenges take time and resources – resources that the provincial and federal governments have thoughtfully cut to the bone.

    The cynicism of a government that would hack away at welfare, cause a massive increase in street homelessness, then criminalize the homeless population – of course, for their own good – boggles the mind.

  • Local resident

    The Charter was created by polictician and it’s probably time for it to be edited by policticians.
    It should be a living document that is flexible and adaptable to the situations of the day not a tool to hide behind.
    I doubt too many people affected by this would be the ones challenging it but instead it will be challenged by those that claim to represent them.

  • Michael Phillips


    I’m in agreement with all of those who have responded to your question: we shouldn’t allow police to physically force a person to do something/go somewhere when they’re not violating the criminal code, and being outside in bad weather shouldn’t ever make it into the criminal code. It really is their choice and we shouldn’t assume that they’re acting foolishly since they know more about being on the street vs being in a shelter than we do.

    The best we can do is ensure adequate shelter/housing space, drug rehabilitation space, institutionalization space and psychiatric counselling, and ensure that the homeless have as much thermal protection (blankets, perhaps a kind of cheap non-flammable heating device) as we can offer.

    From the article:
    “Mr. Coleman said it’s possible that advocacy groups will mount a Charter challenge to the legislation, but he said the government is willing to accept that risk. He wouldn’t say when the legislation would be coming forward, but an internal memo noted that the deadline for the draft was Sept. 10, indicating it could be imminent.”

    It also bothers me that the government would play “trial and error” with the Charter in this way. At least wait until there’s some consensus on whether something like this is even remotely legal before putting forward legislation. Locking people up illegally really is one of the worst offences a government can commit.

  • IanS:

    My understanding is that homeless people were rounded-up for the Aussie and Atlanta summer gams and certainly China took steps to hide overt poverty during the 2008 Games. Why would the 2010 Games be any different?

  • Stephanie

    For information about the Olympics and displacement, see this ZNet article: – the footnoted information is good. Also, look at information provided by the Centre on Housing Rights and Eviction at

  • IanS

    Huh. Well, the timing is certainly suspicious. Still, you’d think any attempt to pass legislation and actually carry out such a roundup would garner a lot of negative publicity. I guess I’m naive, but I’m inclined to take this at face value, ie. perhaps well meaning, but ultimately a misguided and almost certainly illegal measure.

  • jesse

    @Todd: Haha! “Bad weather” just in time for the Olympics. The weather gods likely have other ideas.

  • Michael Phillips

    The usually very intelligent Gary Mason just published this asinine commentary on the Globe and Mail site:

    The crown jewel quote:

    “Sometimes ensuring citizens are safe means leaving aside their constitutional freedoms”

    I can think of one or two crackpots who have said that in their day. Very sad (and a bit scary) that the former highest legal authority in the land, Wally Oppal, also feels this way.

  • Thanks for your thoughts…to Mira and others, I don’t pretend to have the answers. That’s why I asked the question. It was not a rhetorical question.

    I agree that the shelters are currently awful places to live in, which is why I put forward the idea of building smaller, self contained units in relocatable modular housing as an interim solution.

    I too want to see everyone have safe and decent housing, but realistically, this is not going to happen. We are not going to end homelessness by 2015 or 2025 or 2035….and quite frankly, I think it is naive to believe it can be done, unless one legislates against it. Or somehow stops homeless people from coming to our region.

    In the meanwhile, however, while we build self contained accommodation, I do believe that we could also build improved shelters… with a greater degree of privacy and security. Why don’t the operators provide lockers where people can secure their possessions in the evenings? Why not create interior partitions, which was an idea tried in Toronto, with success?

    My comment was prompted by the significant public outcry when Tracey died. Yes, it would be wonderful to build enough housing for everyone so this doesn’t happen…and we need to have adequate accommodation for those who are mentally ill…but I’m sorry to say but I don’t expect that this is going to happen in the foreseeable future. That’s why I was questioning what else might be done.

  • Denis

    And speaking of tools in the tool box, Coleman is the one in the house. He has screwed up so often since becoming a minister one wonders how he keeps a job

  • I agree with Geller. Allowing people to die out on the streets is not humane. How David Eby could even suggest this, shows an uncaring feeling toward very sick people. Although granted statements like this certainly haven’t hurt Mr Eby’s career.

    It seems to me that the Povertarian industry is joined at the hip with the activist community (at least many anyway) and their solutions to homelessness is to allow the status quo to continue. Where has this gotten us? Right as Geller correctly points out, where the Tracey’s of the City are left discarded and alone out in the cold harsh conditions to either freeze or burn to death.

  • Frothingham

    This is about all about optics for the month of Feb. Nothing else. After the ides of march it will be back to same old. Coleman’s heart is not in this. The whole document if true smacks of expediency.

  • Where in Frances’ article does David Eby suggest allowing people to die on the streets?

    If we are considering infringing on the rights of people during winter weather conditions ‘for their own good’ I think it’s worthwhile to consider the 25 deaths during 2008 mentioned in this article… and whether a similar law would be considered by the prov. government to limit their freedom to make a potentially fatal decision:

  • FBT

    I find it both troubling and amusing that out of 25 comments and including Frances in her blog post, no one mentions the FACT that it is Gregor and Vision who called for this in the first place.

    Sure lets dump on Coleman and Liberals for another piece of bad legistlation. The concept of removing people from the streets came out of everyone’s beloved mayor and his council and party. What’s disturbing is that Coleman actually took the request by Gregor seriously.

    Everyone above should be collectively pulling their heads from their asses right now and rubbing some of that stink on Gregor for this bad idea.

    And then to have some of you jump on this to promote your anti-Olympics BS as well. Attack of the Blog couldn’t be more accurate to describe some of the bunch around here.

    First Gregor loves Gordo’s gas tax, now they’re exchanging text messages on bad policy. I’m not sure which of them is worse or if they found a common middle ground to share.

    Shame on all of you for continuing this charade of good governance coming out of city hall. This started with Gregor and needs to end with Gregor.

  • “Coleman’s heart is not in this.”

    Frothingham, I am curious to know on what basis you have formed this opinion. Is it based on conversations or meetings you have had with the minister, or something you surmise, based on a generally negative attitude towards him and his government?

    I do not claim to know the Minister, but I have been with him at housing events, including last year’s non-profit CHRA conference, and believe that he is quite genuine in his desire to address the problem of homelessness. While I don’t doubt that he wants to avoid seeing anyone die on the streets during the Olympics….so do I.

  • Last year in early November I was walking around the downtown eastside as part of normal routine, and couldn’t help but notice the poverty and hopelessness that seem to be rampant on every corner of this the poorest part of our lovely city. I myself have suffered in the past from addiction and temporary homeless conditions. After a few days of feeling inspired I decided to carry a camera with me and started to document what I saw for the next two week’s I gathered together a archive of photo’s and with the help of a friend we produced a video which we aptly named THE OLYMPICS’ TOOK MY HOME This video is currently hosted on over fifty websites throughout the world. I also started a WEBSITE called ” WHO NEW” Today I’m so looking forward to the coming event’s surrounding the Olympics’ and the plight of this neighborhood Here is the link to this video

  • spartikus

    We are not going to end homelessness by 2015 or 2025 or 2035

    It took less than 10 years from commitment to execution to place a man on the moon. 20 years ago the homeless population of the Lower Mainland was statistically-speaking neglible. We know precisely what happened to get us from there to here – facilities were closed and social programs slashed. Unlike the Apollo landing, we don’t need advances in rocket science. Homelessness could be ended in weeks with enough political consensus and $$$$. That that consensus doesn’t currently exist is a question of apathy rather than a lack of knowledge on how to solve the problem.

    We have a provincial government whose policies have consistently favoured the wealthy for 10 years. We currently have a budget tabled that, for example, sets aside hundreds of millions of dollar for a sports stadium – the main beneficiary of which would be a team whose owner had already pledged to build a stadium with his own money. You tell me what problems need to be overcome.

    I find it both troubling and amusing that out of 25 comments and including Frances in her blog post, no one mentions the FACT that it is Gregor and Vision who called for this in the first place.

    Well, allow me to jump through the moral purity hoop and say “Boo Vision”

  • cashisking

    For the same reason that I don’t beleive that the 2nd Amendment in the U.S. means people with assault rifles should hunt deer I don’t beleive the Canadian Charter should allow people with mental/drug problems wander the streets in a suspended form of hell. As comment 14 states the document should be a living a living breathing document. We either go the route of the caveman or we embrace “democratic constitutionalism”.
    Sadly I too believe that this was done specifically for the olympics and that they will lose the challenge in court … from a tactical point of view the timing is brilliant but it does scare me. I’ve always looked down on most politicians but maybe they’re not that stupid.

  • MLA’s housing allowance:

    $1583 per month

  • Michael Phillips

    I’m curious if you can point us to a source which describes how this idea originated with the Mayor or Vision. It appears that he was already making critical statements about this plan yesterday, the day the story broke, in time to appear in today’s newspapers.

  • spartikus

    I’m curious if you can point us to a source which describes how this idea originated with the Mayor or Vision.

    Indeed, cite please. According to Councillor Meggs, it’s Coleman’s idea.

  • Chris Kean

    Mr Eby would prefer to say the proposed new legislation infringes upon civil liberties. Therefore he appears to be saying the homeless have the constitutional right to die on the streets as has happened. To me this is very inhumane and uncaring.

    Jamie Lee

  • To those who wonder whether the Mayor previously indicated a desire to give police additional powers….

    From a December 19th 2008 newstory:

    Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson, who campaigned on the promise to end homelessness by 2015, said he was “horrified” to hear of the death.

    “Its a great tragedy for the city, its a great tragedy for all of us here in the community who have been working hard to right a terrible wrong in our city and address the problem of homelessness,” he said.

    Robertson said Friday he was going to speak to Vancouver police chief Jim Chu about what could be done to give police greater powers to compel people to seek shelter on bitterly cold nights.

  • Jamie, it’s a false (and kind of dirty) dichotomy to assert that the choices are a) criminalize homelessness out of humanity and caring and b) let people die on the streets.

    The issue is way more nuanced than that. Why do people refuse shelters? I bet the answer is pretty informative, and using the police to force people into places they don’t want to be because you’ve constructed a basis of ‘humanness and caring’ is to ignore the fact that the homeless have rights and choose to exercise them in ways you may not like.

    That lets alone the mental health issues that are often involved with those who refuse shelter, which are also very real.

    How far would you go with this strong arm of love? Are people who refuse healthy foods to be force-fed them so that they don’t die of obesity? Chris put the money on the mark with the idea that Coleman wants two sets of rules: one for those with addresses and one without, and your genuine concern is being played in favour of just another expansion of policing in the province.

  • FBT

    There you go, read the article. It states Gregor was planning to speak to the police chief regarding this.

    Additionally I’ve kept a GlobalBC news recording of Gregor talking about this very thing to the media.

    Lastly, if I remember correctly there was an earlier post on this blog with comments about this very same topic around the time Tracy perished. I believe Gregor was implicated as the originator of this idea back then as well.

    So 2 for sure and a possible 3rd place if it still resides in the archives here, showing that Gregor hatched this bad idea in the first place, and yet him and Meggs have the gall to deny it.

    What a bunch of low-lifes.

    Frankly you folks aren’t much better if you continue to point the finger elsewhere on this.

  • FBT

    Michael Geller,

    In case you didn’t know how, just copy and paste the address from your internet browser into your post and it should work…..

    Sometimes though because of the length they don’t. If anyone has trouble with the one above, just copy and paste it into the address field of your browser and press enter.

  • FBT

    Oh and Spartikus don’t forget to ship the crap from behind your ears once you get your head out of your arse.

  • Boy, one only has to look at the ill-mannered, narrow-minded behavior we display on this blog to understand why some homeless people make a choice to distance themselves from polite society.

  • spartikus

    And here I thought FBT was all about the tolerance of other’s viewpoints.

    If you make a good, well-supported argument, I will change my mind. If I ask for a citation, don’t get offended.

  • Michael Phillips

    Thanks for the info Mr Geller and FBT, it does appear the the Mayor had the idea that using police force may be a possibility in the hours after Tracey’s death occured. However, even the day Tracey died he voiced concerns about the civil rights aspect of compelling people to go to a shelter,

    – Mayor Gregor Robertson said he had a discussion about the matter with Vancouver police Chief Jim Chu on Friday.

    “There is an issue of civil rights there that we have to grapple with, and that is the challenge right now, particularly with people who choose to remain or are convinced that they belong outside,” Robertson said. –

    There is definitely a difference between thinking that using police force in this way may be a possibility in the hours after Tracey’s death, and actually working away on a bill to this effect for months.

    If he was really keen on the idea, it might have appeared in his press release which it didn’t,

    I wouldn’t say based on these statements that he is responsible for this Act.

  • cashisking

    I had a good friend who’s brother was diagnosed as a schizophrenic just after the charter came in. His father was one of the most respected and succesful lawyers in the city. He was one of the youngest QC’s in the country, money, connections etc. He spent the better part of a decade trying to get his son of the street and IF any person was capable of pulling a few right strings it would have been him. He finally had to give up against the charter. If YOU honestly beleive this has anything to do with the mayor or someone in the provincial gov’t actually giving a shit you are SADLY mistaken.
    Hope that doesn’t burst anyones bubble but it’s the truth.

  • Frothingham

    michael geller // Sep 22, 2009 at 7:51 am

    Look at their past record on all of this. We’ll see after March if they are still on course to address this major issue. Colour me a cynic.

  • Todd

    Look they had all the supposed experts on the HEAT team including Mr David Eby. I went into these shelters and they are a joke. It is up to us to ensure they are acceptable and suitable accommodation for the homeless. No wonder the homeless don’t want to go into them but again, the question has to be posed – what is safer and more humane – an indoor space where people temporarily warehoused or is it better to leave our vulnerable, weak and very sick people to be left on the street to die?

  • Helping people is a great thing.
    But forcing them to be helped is questionable.

  • Stephanie

    Did anyone hear Jan Wong take Rich Coleman to pieces on The Current today? Coleman says that he speaks to workers in the DTES regularly and that they say that things are “better down there than they’ve ever been”. The mind just boggles.