Comprehensive Approach Needed to Public Safety, Mental Health, and Addictions

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.

Overdose Awareness Day

Today, Victoria will recognize Overdose Awareness Day from 4:00 to 8:00 pm with a gathering in Centennial Square. Organized by the South Island Community Overdose Response Network (SICORN), this event will provide an opportunity for the community to come together and remember those we’ve lost, and to educate ourselves to prevent future loss of life.

Addiction is not something we can end for others. Anyone who has experienced addiction, or loved ones struggling with addiction, knows that the strength to beat it must come from within. What we can end is addiction stigma.

We can help others get the care and support they need, but only when we know they are struggling. As a society, we believe that addiction is always visible. In Victoria, where issues of homelessness, mental health, and addictions are frequently intertwined, this perception is especially true.

But there’s much more to addiction than what we can see around us. Addiction is different for every single person and it’s often invisible to everyone but the person struggling. The largest barrier to aid for people struggling with addiction is the stigma that makes them feel like they can’t tell anyone what they are going through.

Many are unable to seek help from their employers for fear of losing their job. Many are unable to speak to their friends for fear of being ostracized. And many are unable to even speak to their families—their parents, their children—for fear of disappointing those they love most.

We can’t expect to solve addiction. We can expect to solve stigma, and we can do it now.

Nearly 4,000 Canadians died from opioid-related deaths in 2017 and over a third of those deaths took place in B.C. These numbers will continue to climb if we don’t take action together.

Our task is simple but difficult to achieve: we have to change the way we think and talk about addiction because that will change the way we act. We simply cannot continue to criminalize people suffering from addiction. We have to treat addiction like any other medical condition, and that means providing access to care.

While we work together to redefine addiction—in our conversations, in our laws, and in our hearts—please join me today in Centennial Square to let everyone struggling with addiction know, “We see you. We are here for you. You don’t need to fight this battle alone anymore.”

Moms Like Us

A month and a half ago, I had a call from a group of moms who all have adult children who live with mental illnesses. I met with them at City Hall rather than at my regular coffee shop location because they wanted privacy and confidence. They had come to ask for my help to bring an Accredited Clubhouse to Victoria like the Pathways Clubhouse in Richmond that they’d visited recently.

Despite everything I have on my plate right now, I said yes. I said yes because I was moved by their stories and by their passion. But I was most moved when one of them said, “We’re not only doing this for our children. We’re also doing this for people living on the street, people who are poor, people who face all sorts of barriers, people who don’t have moms like us.” “Moms Like Us!” I said, “that’s a great name for your group.” And so it is. 

Mother’s Day Post from Moms Like Us

What does it mean to be a mother? It is Mother’s Day this weekend and at the same time many of our local birds are nesting. There is a mother robin with her nest in a trellis outside our window. She sits for hours in the rain, wind, cold and heat to keep her eggs warm. I help her by chasing away the crows and squirrels that threaten her babies. As I watch throughout the day I am struck by the incredible responsibility that comes with motherhood. Mothers are hard wired to love, nurture, soothe, protect and defend their babies. A young mother, like the robin, has no idea what her special challenges will be.

Mothers of children with mental health issues can be faced with some unique challenges.

It is heart wrenching to watching a child sit alone in their room depressed while their siblings and other children join community sports teams or take music lessons. It feels helpless to find out your adolescent is so consumed with anxiety that going to school becomes impossible without a drink or a toke while other teenagers are taking part in all the school and social activities they can. It is hard to accept the reality that your young adult cannot cope with finding a job, applying for post secondary or making travel plans while their peers are building careers and long term relationships.

These challenges alone can be daunting but even more demanding is the difficult task navigating the mental health system to find the support for our children with brain illnesses. Sadly, even in this, the twenty-first century with all the access to information you could want, the stigma of mental illness is alive and well.

We know the sorrow of watching our child be judged by those who don’t understand or by professionals without compassion. We have dealt with the disappointment of researching services, that when our name is finally first on the wait list, they fail to deliver. We have wept upon hearing the horrifying details of an incident our child was involved in and knowing our child has been traumatized once again. We have contained our anger when yet another person suggests as mothers we are too involved with our adult children.

And through all this we ride the roller coaster of hope and despair… and never let go. We hang on at every turn because if we let go who will step up for our children? Mothers’ love is unconditional.

So as mothers we reach out to others who know what it is like to have a child with a mental health issue. Mothers who have compassion for each other as well as the passion to fight for the respect, dignity and skills their children need to be contributing members of their community.

Happy Mother’s Day to all mothers, but especially to moms like us.

To connect with Moms Like Us and for more information on our May 21st Clubhouse event, please email  momslikeus2014@gmail.com.