November 2, 2009
The Vancouver Sun October 29 2009 reports that B.C. is giving police the power to force street people into shelters in the event of a cold weather alert. There is much controversy around this move for several reasons. There is of coarse the cynical view that this is just a ploy to clear the streets for the Olympic Games. But since the legislation does not include the forced confinement of the person in question I don't see this as a likely tool for improving the urban aesthetic. That very flaw is what makes me skeptical about the efficacy of the new law. People who don't seek the warmth and security of a shelter are doing so for reasons outside of hunger and cold. They have mental health or addiction issues which out weigh, reason and good judgement. The police can bring them against their will to a shelter, but they are free to promptly walk away. Are we going to keep picking the same individuals up all night to give them a little defrost time in the back of various cruisers? That might actually work. I think it is far more likely police will record each drop off, so that if anyone turns up dead in the morning city administration can say. Too bad...So sad...we did our best, NOT OUR FAULT.
Fortunately cold weather alerts are rare on the west coast. There is something in Alberta called a form 10 which allows police to order (I think it is 72 hour) commitment to hospital of a person deemed to be a danger to self or others. Now wanting to stay out in -20c weather could be seen as a danger to oneself. But first the police would have to establish that the choice of nesting place did not offer protection from the elements.
According to the CBC report there are questions about what would be allowed as necessary and reasonable force to get the homeless person to comply. The issue of civil liberties was also raised, don't people have a right to self determination. Let me break out my Ethics (B.A. Philosophy) degree for this one. The principle of universalism states that any right we claim for ourselves we must be willing to extend to everyone else. So we get to sleep any where we want...that means we should let others sleep anywhere they want. Not the answer I was hoping for. Let's look at Utilitarianism...the greatest good for the greatest number. A person choosing not to sleep in a shelter affects us how? For that matter a person freezing to death affects us how? Not much...but that is not the answer I was looking for either.
I believe what I am looking for comes under the Social Contract, by choosing to live with a group of others we choose to relinquish certain rights for the common good. As long as people choose to live in any given community they enter into the social contract. Our governments and police have fiduciary duty to protect the citizens, in return we give up a certain level of self determination. Inequities in the application of the law are a discussion for another time. I guess the principle that applies best to this legislation is DO NO HARM. Letting someone freeze to death or worse is definitely harmful.