A groundswell of outrage and moral panic has exploded in Rutland upon City Council’s approval of a development permit that will allow BC Housing to build supportive housing for 49 individuals at 130 McCurdy Road who are either in recovery, or may still use drugs. Protests have been planned for the approved development of this, and another BC Housing project at 280 McIntosh Road, which has not yet come before council.
Residents believe more support facilities will increase Rutland’s homeless and substance addicted population, and that such projects are inappropriate for family neighbourhoods or close to schools.
Having gone to school at Hollywood Middle, Springvalley Secondary, and Rutland Senior, I disagree that drug use is a new phenomenon made worse in this area by the development of social housing. Housing is one solution, not a cause of this problem. I believe the effects of drug use have escalated due to poor pharmaceutical policies, and a decade of critical provincial cuts to residential mental health and treatment services. Drug and alcohol abuse was widespread there when I was a teen. Drug users are becoming more visible for those whose socioeconomic position or home life protected them when we were younger. This has occurred for complex reasons that must be analyzed through a macro lens.
When your home life is precarious, and you, or your friends have slept in the playground in Centennial park, or hitchhiked regularly to get around this poorly designed town, you perceive these problems, and this community a bit differently. Every time a run down single family house in Vancouver or Kelowna is replaced by a luxury condo, I have to wonder what has become of the group of functional substance users and alcoholics who used to rent those houses.
I am dismayed but not surprised that some residents I attended school with believe the appropriate response to this issue is to use their voice to bully and shame homeless individuals by posting videos and photos, and through memes, name calling, and personal attacks on Mayor Basran and councillors who’ve vocally supported the City’s Journey Home Strategy to address homelessness.
Middle school and High School was a traumatic, lonely experience for a nerd whose closest friends didn’t attend class much because selling marijuana or working full time served them more than going to class.
Bullying at RSS was rampant and drugs and alcohol were easy to get. They helped me cope with suicidal ideations induced by violence at home. If social media existed back then, I’m sure videos of me puking and crying in Ben Lee Park would be all over Facebook. I’m lucky injectable opioids were not as available back then, and that I had Mike Fischer as a teacher to save my life by getting me addicted to academics. Without his supportive commentary ("You’re ok kid, you’re going to do great things, prom is stupid anyways") I could’ve easily followed my father down the path of opioid addiction.
Thankfully, we’re not in high school anymore, so instead of shaming people with negative words and photos, let’s have a conversation about the policies and politics that got us here.
No Winners in the Blame Game
The hero of this narrative has become MLA Norman Letnick, BC Liberal Health Critic, who recently published an open letter to Selina Robinson, NDP Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing. I’m disappointed Norm Letnick directed his letter to Ms. Robinson, rather than using his platform and expertise to address the specific public health policies at the heart of the matter.
As the opposition Health Critic and a PHD candidate in Health Economics, Mr. Letnick is highly qualified and positioned to discuss the funding and personnel challenges standing in the way of the treatment beds and programs everyone, on all sides of this debate, would like to see more of. By appealing to emotions, and directing residents to petition Ms. Robinson, he has instead channeled socio political anxieties towards housing policy without offering positive solutions from his portfolio. Letnick argues: "It’s the responsibility of the provincial government and its partner agencies to demonstrate that they can house people actively taking drugs without adversely impacting their surrounding neighbourhood... Currently that is not the case." I would counter that it is the responsibility of critics to demonstrate how the issues Rutland is experiencing is directly related to the rent paying clients of Heath House and Newgate.
What proof do we have that residents of those units are the individuals discarding needles in parks, stealing, and being filmed pushing shopping carts? If you have your own room, why would you push all your worldly possessions around in a shopping cart? Opioids are not social drugs. My only contact with my father in my teens was through a locked basement door because he was ashamed and anxious. I’ve seen his face less than 10 times my whole life. Forgive my stupid naive bleeding liberal heart, but it fiercely breaks when I think of how humiliated and worthless someone like him would feel if photos of him struggling to walk home were posted on social media for others to ridicule. How useless that would be as a means to encourage someone struggling with recovery that rejoining society is worthwhile.
But I’m not convinced the individuals being photographed for their conduct and appearance in public are the clients of supportive housing, though they may be current users of emergency shelters like Inn from the Cold, or Cornerstone which is slated for closure. It’s unfair to paint all supportive housing clients with the same brush without starting to really engage them, and their feedback to professionally assess who supportive housing works for, who it doesn’t, and the whys.
How will stopping work on supportive housing while we close shelters solve the problem? How did the closures of Riverview Psychiatric Hospital in Coquitlam and Crossroads Detox Centre in Kelowna while the BC Liberal party was in power contribute to the overflow of mentally ill, substance addicted people in this province? Where is Mr. Letnick’s advocacy for more treatment beds? What was his response to the Health Union Employees who protested his office in 2013 because they knew the closure of Crossroads would be "an unmitigated disaster"? Interior Health was not successful in meeting the funding asks needed to keep Crossroads in operation. Why? Why did the funding need jump 53%, from $70 a bed to $132 per bed?
On the ground level, and in the absence of those answers, it’s hard not to draw links between the BC Liberal’s administration and the resulting burdens they put on regional municipalities who were not ready to take on those challenges. As Marina Morrow noted in 2006:
"When the current government came to power in 2001, one of its first actions was to eliminate the position of the Mental Health Advocate and the protected envelope for mental health services that previously ensured that money allocated to mental health would not be used for non-mental health related services. The government reduced staff in the Adult Mental Health Division of the Ministry by 70 per cent, thus radically altering its policy and leadership capacity. During this time the government also instituted deep cuts to social welfare services and legal aid. To date, little attention has been paid to the combined impact of cuts and policy changes to social services and mental health care."2
If those strategies are defensible, or if there’s unfinished work the current government has undermined, please, let’s have that conversation, because my friends and neighbours are dying. I do not want any other child in BC to grow up without their father like me and my brother, or be placed in a dry, but unsafe home because our society is eager to help women and children, while ignoring the utter mental devastation kids experience when they are told to stop hoping daddy will keep his visitation appointments because he’s sick and will never get better.
In other areas of care, the BC Liberals did some great work, but this is a conversation about mental health and addiction - a crucial area they divested in. My intention is not to personally blame Mr. Letnick for his party’s policies, but to beg him to use his voice, experience, and expertise to help develop a non-partisan, data supported economic plan for substance abuse and poverty reduction that will be endorsed by all levels of government (regardless of who is in office) and by all stakeholders in Health Care delivery, whether they are management, union, salaried employees, independent contractors, or patients and their loved ones.
Redirecting blame to the NDP’s housing Minister causes further division, and pits local neighbourhoods against one another as we fight about where to build these facilities instead of why we need them, and why, as each supportive housing complex goes up, we’re not also building a neighbouring treatment facility. It emphasizes one of the core problems at the root of this issue: Politics.
I commend Mayor Basran for taking political flack and honestly admitting that "When it comes to dealing with the really heavy number of #1 priorities in our community, collaboration is really the only way we’re going to solve this. The time to complain is over."
Complaining to the City really won’t solve anything whether you like his tone or not. City council is the incorrect target. As City Planner Adam Cseke noted before the McCurdy presentation, "The local government act only allows local municipalities to regulate developments based on form, character, and land use, not the users."
Councillor Hodge blatantly broke this bylaw by voting no to this form and character application on the false pretense of taking issue with the design. He admitted his vote is actually due to concerns over how this project has changed hands, and the uncertainty over how BC Housing will manage the program and the residents.
"There’s a flaw in the process. Things can change such as ownership or design or guidelines or perception of how a building is run or not run… and then things change...seems to me a lack of ability to address issues that may have had a different impact on the approval decisions being made. Today we’re voting yes or no on form or character. But the project is not the project it was…So, I think Mr. Mayor I’m going to have to find a problem with the design that will dictate my decision (sic)."3
How very enlightening one Councillor can openly break a provincial law without any scrutiny to deny housing to those in need, but it’s Councillor Loyal Wooldridge who was chastised by senior councillor members for being "too political and philosophical" for voting down a form and character application for a recent project's design that lacks above ground oil tanks or renewable technology.4
If climate change concerns and engineering related criticisms are philosophical, but solutions to save human lives can be written off as a "design problem", we’re in deep trouble. Governments that do not apply the same sets of rules equally, or fail to support decisions with data are at the root of many issues, including the substance and housing crisis.
I acknowledge the fears and valid concerns of Rutland residents, but I do not believe a stop work order on supportive housing will make our city safer, or make substance users stop existing. I’m open to discussions on better guidelines for how these facilities are managed. I too would like to see better urban planning that neither concentrates low income housing in your neighbourhood, nor transforms my downtown neighbourhood into a place where my income bracket may one day disqualify me from living there. If the province, BC Housing, and the City want to leverage the McCurdy Road asset to instead purchase and develop the lot that’s for sale across from me, I will be the first to support that motion however I can. I will volunteer my time and money to build a community garden on site and be a constant presence to make sure it becomes a positive space for everyone.
But first, we as concerned citizens need to agree to a code of conduct or these discussions will go nowhere. The political pendulum will swing back and forth in perpetuity, implementing half baked, expensive programs when one political party is in power, just to be undone by the next. We will never move forward that way. I don’t have the answers, but doing nothing is not an option.
I agree, #weallmatter.
Your children, seniors, working class families, political leaders, the homeless, the addicted, the children and partners of homeless people and substance users. The amount of taxes someone pays does not determine the value of their life. If we can agree to that, we can begin the work of honest, open discussions to identify our common interests, and find the true roots responsible for the crisis in all streets of this province.
Let’s start by appealing to our Minister of Health, Adrian Dix and Minister of Mental Health and Addictions, Judy Darcy to adequately fund the $26M in wrap around support services the success our Journey Home Strategy depends on.