Opinion: Society’s most vulnerable deserve better. So too do the residents of Strathcona, Yaletown and False Creek.
It is long past time for a candid discussion about our treatment of the mentally ill and severely addicted. Having served in the provincial government from 2001 to 2013 in senior cabinet roles, including as health minister, I have witnessed firsthand the continued failure of many well-intentioned addiction and mental-health programs in our province. The failures cross party lines, from Social Credit, to B.C. Liberal and NDP governments.
There is a corresponding tendency for politicians to ignore the concerns of the quiet, law-abiding majority, while effectively devoting their energies to defending lawlessness, rampant drug trafficking, graffiti and social disorder. Always in the name of “compassion,” mind you.
But real compassion should never include relegating the mentally ill and addicted to hellish conditions we would never tolerate for ourselves or our children.
Yet, the interests of the broader public continue to be sidelined or ignored. Requests for safe streets in which to jog, walk to work, operate a business or just enjoy time outside with children or pets are seen as unsympathetic to the plight of the homeless. Whether New York in the 1970s or San Francisco today, misguided policies are undermining the quality of life in urban centres. Here in Vancouver, the mayor and some members of council are determined to follow suit.
This total disregard to growing street disorder and unbridled criminal activity is shocking. Open-air crime markets featuring stolen goods on the Downtown Eastside are tolerated. Machete attacks on innocent pedestrians and all manner of violent threats and assaults are a common occurrence. The recent video of a sexual assault outside the Carnegie Centre with witnesses standing idly by is just the latest outrage.
I don’t blame the police. I blame the mayor and a few council members for letting the deteriorating conditions to persist by not allowing the police to do their job. Indeed, the mayor and his council allies recently tried to cut the police budget by millions of dollars.
Since departing government seven years ago, I’ve volunteered time at a non-profit that deals with housing the homeless, along with researching mental health and addiction issues. I’ve concluded that our current treatment programs for the mentally ill and severely addicted are largely a failure. While critics are immediately attacked for lacking compassion, I’d argue that a truly compassionate approach doesn’t leave the mentally ill and addicted to roam the streets being assaulted both physically and sexually, while drug dealers only exploit them further.
Let’s start by implementing the entire Four Pillars drug strategy, which involves prevention, harm reduction, treatment, and enforcement. The strategy is underpinned by science and evidence, and developed with the input of medical professionals, social workers, police and politicians. As minister of health, I supported the Four Pillars and ensured continued support for harm-reduction trials that were not universally welcomed. While I acknowledge the problem has dramatically worsened with the rise of opioids and fentanyl since I departed public life, it’s impossible to overlook how the city and province ignore both the treatment and police enforcement pillars.
Harm reduction was always meant to provides safe injection sites where users could be connected to addiction recovery treatments. Instead, the concept has morphed into finding new ways to continue providing “safe” drugs to addicts, with much less focus on effective drug-free recovery. Coupled with a largely “hands off” policing approach, we are now seeing the catastrophic societal results.
Keep in mind, the affected population in Vancouver totals only 2,500 or so, with approximately 300 to 400 individuals suffering from the most severe mental health and addiction issues.
The Building Community Society, under the leadership of former premier Mike Harcourt and psychiatrist Bill MacEwan, deserves full marks by calling for a focus on this specific population. They correctly note that current services are fragmented, and this population is incapable or unlikely to ever navigate the maze of services on their own.
I couldn’t agree more. Many of these folks are not in any position to make decisions in their own interests, and putting the onus on them to do so is obviously flawed, with devastating consequences. Real compassion involves providing mandatory long-term treatment/housing that allows them to stabilize and potentially realize a better future. We should heed the calls from Coquitlam Mayor Richard Stewart and re-utilize the lands at Riverview with new buildings capable of dealing with those who desperately need this highly specialized help. Not the deeply flawed institutionalization of the past, but rather a focus on mandatory treatment with re-entry into society as the objective.
The current approach is not working. Continuing to do the same thing and expecting different results epitomizes the current thinking. And as if compassionate grounds alone aren’t convincing enough, there is also the fact that the upfront investment will pay for itself in longer-term savings from reduced hospitalization, lower crime, less cycling in and out of short-term treatment programs, and a safer, less-chaotic community.
Society’s most vulnerable deserve better. So, too, do the residents of Strathcona, Yaletown and False Creek. We can, and must, address past and present failures with compassion as our guide.
Kevin Falcon served as health minister, deputy premier and finance minister in a previous B.C. Liberal government.