VANCOUVER, British Columbia (Reuters) - Police said on Monday they will not force homeless people into shelters despite a new law critics say is designed to clear the poor off Vancouver’s streets during next year’s Olympics.
The law, which officials say will protect the homeless during extreme weather, gives police the authority to detain a homeless person and transport them to an emergency shelter even if they say they want remain on the street.
Officers already offer aid during cold weather, such as blankets, and have no plans to begin forcing people to seek unwanted shelter assistance, Vancouver Police Chief Constable Jim Chu told reporters.
“If there is resistance, we will just back away,” said Chu as he unveiled new guidelines for police officers on how to deal with provincial law that is scheduled to come into force this month.
Chu said the prior law gave officers the authority they needed.
The British Columbia provincial government says it enacted the law because of an incident last winter in which a woman who refused to go to an emergency shelter burned to death on a downtown Vancouver street while trying to stay warm.
Some anti-poverty advocates say Vancouver’s homeless problem is not new, so the real motivation for the law is to make it easier to hide the poor from world media attention during the Winter Games in February.
The announcement shows police share the concern of poverty activists that it is unconstitutional in Canada to forcibly detain a homeless person just to take them to a shelter, said Laura Track of the Pivot Legal Society.
“Being homeless is not a crime in Canada,” Track said.
Some homeless people refuse to use emergency shelters even during extreme cold weather because they do not feel safe in them, and would be forced to leave their personal belongings unattended on the street, poverty support groups say.
Chu unveiled a policy guideline for Vancouver police on Monday that says an officer can touch a homeless person while offering shelter aid, but only in a “non-forceful” manner similar to helping an elderly person cross a busy street.
Reporting by Allan Dowd