Thursday, July 24, 2008

A Strategic Vision to End Homelessness in BC

This is the second in a series of excerpts from the report on homelessness in BC, "Finding Our Way Home" prepared by David Chudnovsky, Opposition Critic for Homelessness in the Legislature. The complete report can be read at

“I think that we as citizens in a society are all responsible for each other. So as long as there’s homelessness, we are responsible to find a solution. And, the government actually represents us, so please start listening to us. We want solutions, and to be part of the solution.” (Loretta, Nelson Mental Health Clubhouse)

In the United States the slogan “Housing First” has gained traction and in many places informs policy. It is a useful concept, as it implies two fundamental principles. First is the notion that having a home is a right. Second, is the idea that housing needs to be provided immediately, independent of the causes of the homelessness or the health of the homeless person.

Even so, “Housing First” is an inadequate response to the crisis of homelessness in BC as it does not provide the resources needed for success. A more comprehensive strategy is necessary:


For many homeless people simply providing a home will solve the problem. For thousands of others a home is necessary but not sufficient. The Simon Fraser study indicates that more than 10,000 homeless people in BC have either a mental health or addiction problem or both. It is these British Columbians, whose health care challenges contribute to their homelessness, who need ongoing supports to be successful.

Senator Michael Kirby’s important work on mental health at the federal level is instructive and persuasive. He is adamant that a “sequential” approach does not work. It doesn’t make sense to say to a homeless person, “Get yourself cleaned up, stop your substance abuse and then we will find you someplace to live.”

Similarly, it is a recipe for failure to house homeless people with mental health and addictions issues and not provide the necessary supports for them immediately when they are housed.

It is often said in explanation of the current crisis that mental health and addiction problems are complicated. That is, of course, the case. But so are cancer and pneumonia complicated. Nevertheless, as a community we provide comprehensive and ongoing care for cancer and pneumonia sufferers.

The situation is dramatically different for those dealing with mental health and addictions challenges. The recent Vancouver Police Department report on mental health problems and their impact on policing clearly indicates a lack of treatment and support which has reached crisis proportions. The problem is not complexity. Rather, it is the stigma and discrimination faced by people with these illnesses. Too often moral and subjective judgments about “personal responsibility” get in the way of a commitment to health care for all.

In this context it is instructive to note Mr. Justice Pitfield’s finding in the recent Insite case.

“While there is nothing to be said in favour of the injection of controlled substances that leads to addiction, there is much to be said against denying addicts health care services that will ameliorate the effects of their condition. Society does that for other substances such as alcohol and tobacco... Management of the harm in those cases is accepted as a community responsibility. I cannot see any rational or logical reason why the approach should be different when dealing with the addiction to narcotics….”

Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside is a unique and important part of the story of homelessness in British Columbia. For decades it has been a mostly successful low income community. When social housing and co-op housing were being funded by the federal and provincial governments many buildings were erected which today form part of a close-knit and dynamic neighbourhood.

This reality is being threatened, on the one hand by rampant speculation, renovation and development of extremely expensive condominiums, and on the other hand – and partially as a result of high-end development – by an explosion of homelessness, addiction and mental health problems.

Future development on the downtown eastside must start with the stabilization of existing low cost housing, the building of needed social housing, and a commitment to the existing neighbourhood, its resilience, history, culture and values.

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