There are people living on the streets of Victoria who struggle with mental health and addictions. I’ve learned that these conditions are often a result of childhood trauma or brain injuries. Although we don’t have verifiable data, there seems to be an increasing number of people in this situation. Their challenges are highly visible and can show up unexpectedly. This can leave some members of the public feeling threatened which isn’t good for anyone – not for those seen as threatening or those feeling threatened.

Addressing homelessness, mental health, and addictions present complex challenges for everyone. This situation isn’t good for the people on the streets who need medical care and attention; if they had a broken arm they would be receiving treatment in a hospital. It isn’t good for other local residents. It isn’t good for business owners. And it’s putting a real strain on frontline workers and on our police officers.

Over the last four years, I’ve frequently spoken with people living on the streets, with residents of affected neighbourhoods, business owners, service providers, and police officers. I’ve listened to many perspectives.

When people struggling with mental health or addictions want to change their life – when they want to get off the street – there is almost nowhere for them to go. They can join a long waitlist for housing or enroll in 30-day treatment with no guarantee of stability or support afterward. Some end up in prison, but when they are released, they are released back onto the street. Some go to hospitals but, again, they are released right back onto the streets. It’s a cycle that’s very hard to break.

Some people in Victoria walk down Pandora or Johnson Streets on a regular basis or take their kids to the Victoria Conservatory of Music, and they feel nervous. It’s not because they think anyone is fundamentally bad but because the situation seems so dire. And also the behaviour they see is unfamiliar to them. They want to feel safe and they want their kids to feel safe.

Our local business community also has a great deal of compassion for people living on our streets; I hear this all the time. Many donate to community organizations. Some let people sleep in their doorways or outside their shops. But it’s also hard to run a business when there are needles, feces and other things that often need to be cleaned up in the mornings. Female staff sometimes don’t feel safe leaving work late at night. Business owners are really frustrated.

Frontline workers are out there working as hard as they can to address all the issues. They’ve witnessed way too many overdoses and deaths. Each time they administer Naloxone they save a life. But there seems like no end in sight to the problem and they are feeling really burnt out.

Our Vic PD officers are out on the streets 24-7. They know most of the people on the streets by name. The police are doing everything they can to help, which sometimes includes preventing a suicide or administering Naloxone. Some of the officers are part of the ACT Teams that work with health care professionals and others to try to help. They’re under-resourced most of the time, responding call to call with many stacked calls waiting. They need more officers and their members are feeling the stress and burnout of working in this really difficult situation.

This situation on our streets clearly isn’t good for anyone. The status quo is unsupportable, unaffordable, and ineffective. If the solutions were easy, the problem would be solved by now. Thankfully there are solutions underway and a more comprehensive approach to come.

Here’s what’s already underway:

  • The opening of the Therapeutic Recovery Centre in View Royal this fall will provide treatment and recovery to a cohort of 50 of the region’s most vulnerable residents. They’ll stay there for 18-24 months and work through the root causes of their addictions. When they come out they will have housing and employment and be on a strong recovery pathway. We know this model works because it has been operating for 40 years at San Patrignano in Italy. BC Housing recently purchased Woodwynn Farms in Central Saanich and plans to run a similar program there, with housing provided offsite. 
  • Thanks to the leadership of Inspector Scott McGregor at VicPD, BC Housing, Pacifica, Island Health, and City Bylaw teamed up to create the Housing Action Response Team (HART). Based on a successful model from Seattle this team works with the most vulnerable people camped in public spaces to assist them in getting the help and shelter they need. In the first six months of HART over 20 people have been housed and received the supports they need to move towards recovery.  
  • Starting in 2015 and reinvigorated this spring, I’ve lead the Pandora Task Force to address the situation on the 900-block of Pandora. Meeting monthly at the Victoria Conservatory of Music, I’ve facilitated a group of residents, business owners, service providers, city staff, the Greater Victoria Placemaking Network and VicPD. We will be bringing forward proposals based on best practices from elsewhere as part of the 2019 budgeting process to make the 900-block of Pandora safe and welcoming for all.  
  • In 2018, the Victoria-Esquimalt Police Board requested six additional officers. I along with four of my colleagues at Victoria Council supported the addition of these officers – the first new officers proposed to be added since 2010. Esquimalt Council did not support the addition of the officers as they did not feel it fit the policing framework agreement between our two communities. The matter has been handed to the Province to make a ruling. We must resolve this issue because while new police officers on the street can’t solve any of the problems above on their own, they are part of the solution.

But what’s really needed is a comprehensive overhaul of the way mental health and addictions resources are spent in the Capital Region. Working together as a region in the past four years we’ve done this with housing. We have the Regional Affordability Strategy, the $90-million Regional Housing First Program, and a Community Plan created by the Greater Victoria Coalition to End Homelessness. We know how the money needs to be spent to most effectively to address chronic homelessness. And our approach here in the region has been recognized provincially and nationally. We must take the same comprehensive approach with mental health and addictions.

In the next term, working in partnership with the Province, we will ensure that money spent on addressing mental health and addictions in our region gets people the supports and services they need—at whatever stage or phase of their mental health or addiction—from prevention to recovery.

We’ll begin by co-convening a Regional Mayor’s Task Force on Mental Health and Addictions with one mayor from the Core, one mayor from the Westshore and one mayor from the Peninsula. It’s not only in the City of Victoria that people need access to treatment. That teenager in Colwood or the injured worker addicted to opioids on the Peninsula need help in their home communities before they end up on Pandora Avenue.

The task force will be co-chaired by the three mayors and comprised of staff from Island Health, staff from the Ministry of Mental Health and Addictions, service providers, members of the business community, police, bylaw, and people with lived experience of mental health and addictions. The scope of work for the task force will be to quantify the problem and the cost regionally and to develop a business case for solving it.

We will implement a new approach to mental health and addictions prevention and treatment in the region and regularly evaluate and share results, and continuously improve the approach based on feedback.

This will be good for the people living on the street who can’t get the help they need and it will be good for the people who will never have to end up on the street. It will take some of the pressure off frontline workers and police, and it will ensure that our streets are welcoming, inclusive places for everyone.