The B.C. government introduced a controversial bill Thursday that will allow police to take homeless people to shelters in extreme weather, but won't give officers the power to force them to stay.
Critics blasted the Assistance to Shelter Act when it was first proposed, but Housing and Social Development Minister Rich Coleman said the bill has nothing to do with sweeping Vancouver's homeless off the streets during the Olympics.
He said the law was prompted by the death of a Vancouver woman last winter who refused to be taken to a shelter. The woman refused offers from city police to take her to a shelter, and later died from injuries she suffered while trying to light a fire to keep warm. "It wasn't about the Olympics," Mr. Coleman said. "It was about, can you find a tool so this type of thing doesn't happen again?"
He said the proposed law gives police authority to take people to shelters, even if it requires them to use force.
"What today we're trying to do is establish a tool so that folks can go and help out folks who need it most to make a decision that may save their lives," he told the legislature while introducing the law.
A draft version of the law leaked earlier this fall revealed the government was considering allowing police to take the homeless to local jails, but that has been dropped.
Mr. Coleman said he expects the law could be the subject of a court challenge. It will be the first of its kind in Canada.
Despite Mr. Coleman's assurances that homeless people have the right to refuse entry to a shelter, the bill could backfire and result in the homeless hiding from police in extreme weather, the B.C. Civil Liberties Association said.
The Opposition New Democrats said the government has had eight years to help the homeless and it may appear to some the homelessness law is being introduced ahead of the Olympics in February.
Experts say it's difficult to know how many homeless people are living on the streets in British Columbia, but a study by researchers at three universities concluded up to 4,000 people were on the streets in the Greater Vancouver region alone in 2006. And critics say that number has only grown.
Mr. Coleman said there are 5,000 beds in homeless shelters in British Columbia and 1,000 more under construction but Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson said the city needs more shelter space.
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