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Homeless apprehensions could begin this weekend

Temperatures are forecast to plunge during the coming week, and with them could fall the perceived right to sleep on B.C.'s streets.

The province's Assistance to Shelter Act empowers police to apprehend individuals sleeping outdoors in extreme weather, and transport them to homeless shelters.

The new law takes effect only when an "Extreme Weather Alert" is declared.

Such alerts are declared whenever conditions are deemed "severe enough to present a substantial threat to the life or health of homeless persons," according to BC Housing. Factors that could trigger such an alert include:

* Temperatures near zero with rainfall that makes it difficult or impossible for homeless people to remain dry;

* Sleet/freezing rain;

* Snow accumulation;

* Sustained high winds;

* Temperatures at or below minus 2 degrees Celsius.

Nighttime temperatures are forecast to dip to minus 2 degrees in Vancouver this weekend, and are expected to drop to minus 7 degrees by Tuesday night, according to Environment Canada. Snow flurries are forecast for the Lower Mainland late next week.

The Vancouver Police Department would not comment on whether it will enforce the new law, or on what degree of force would be authorized for use in the apprehension of an uncooperative homeless person.

"The VPD is currently developing policy for officers around the impending implementation of the Act," Cst. Jana McGuinness wrote in an email to The Tyee.

"During cold weather spells, our officers in the Downtown Eastside and around the city will be making contact with homeless people during the course of their duties and offering them shelter information," McGuinness wrote.

"In many cases, we find that once people find out more about available shelter options they willingly take advantage of the opportunity to warm up and get a hot meal," the VPD spokesperson added.

Extreme Weather Alerts were issued for a total of 37 nights between December 12, 2008 and March 11, 2009. There are about 940 year-round shelter beds throughout the Metro region, 708 of which are in Vancouver.

Housing Minister Rich Coleman has said the act was drafted in response to the cold-weather deaths of mentally ill or addicted homeless individuals who refused to enter emergency homeless shelters.

Downtown Eastside activists have dubbed it the "Kidnap the Homeless Act," and suspect it will be used as a way to sweep homeless people off the streets during the 2010 Winter Games.

There are between 10,000 and 15,000 homeless people living in B.C., according to researchers. A homeless British Columbian dies every 12 days, on average, according to statistics complied by the B.C. Coroner's office.

Monte Paulsen reports on homelessness and housing for The Tyee.

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