I hear you. I am listening.
After conversations with scared parents concerned for their kids, frustrated business owners worried about livelihoods, addicts struggling with pain, trauma and rejection, and a social sector attempting desperately to meet expectations with limited resources – I’ve come to the conclusion we all want the homelessness and addiction crisis to be solved, though our reasons may vary.
It starts with government structure. . .
The truth is, we are at the mercy of relying on senior levels of government to provide funding to overcome these challenges. As a municipality we are children of the province. The Province of British Columbia holds paramountcy over any bylaws or decisions made by municipal Council. We have to ‘manage up’ and bring our needs to the attention of the appropriate ministries: The Ministry of Health, The Ministry of Housing, and The Ministry of Mental Health and Addiction. The Journey Home Strategy is a 5-year plan that was adopted just a year ago, and is only starting to see on the ground action. To think our issues will be solved overnight is unrealistic. Guess what? This same strategy (and Consultant) was used in Medicine Hat who in 9 years achieved function zero homelessness.
Locally, provincially, nationally, and globally we are all frustrated and disheartened by the wild fire like spread of the opioid and housing crises. Policy makers and leaders are equally pissed-off, frustrated, and glaringly aware of the negative effects these social challenges have on the communities who’ve entrusted us to find solutions. My e-mail is now routinely filled with statements directing anger at our Mayor and Council but the uncomfortable truth is, no matter who you elect will face these same challenges. And the solutions and options will most likely be the same.
We have to be careful with our words
The conversation most prevalent in my meetings and in local media is the objection to low barrier (also referred to as ‘wet’) facilities, and the activities they are believed to bring to the surrounding neighbourhoods. The very real incidents of petty theft, discarded needles, and blatant illicit drug dealing and use in public is wearing deeply on our community. It affects our overall sense of safety, which is not right.
At the end of the day, the only way to solve homelessness is to provide homes. Simple. How we provide and operate these homes is the great debate. Some feel abstinence based models are best. For some, it’s treatment first. For others, the suggestions are as cryptic as seclusion in the woods, or sadly, as inhuman as calling for vigilante executions.
Most of the extreme statements come from an understandable place of fear and anger, but no good decisions come from that place.
The key to successful supportive housing is ‘wrap around supports’. Petty theft and drug running are both secondary symptoms of addiction. We need to advocate for low barrier housing as well as appropriate healthcare and social support services to track, monitor and rehabilitate residents. If an addict is prescribed and administered substitute opiate treatments (Suboxone, Methadone etc) by a health care professional, it eliminates their reliance on street drugs, their temptation to steal for the next fix, and deprives local drug dealers and high-level criminals of their power.
We must begin to look at stable housing on a healthcare continuum rather than a moral reward for abstinence, or conforming to what some see as ‘socially acceptable’ behaviours. We must wrap these facilities in the medical and social services, which are critically lacking.
Right now, we face the daunting task of unraveling years of underfunded social programming that have led us to this point. To overcome these challenges, it requires dedicated funding from the provincial and federal government. Municipalities are not equipped to put out this fire alone. Kelowna simply does not have the tax base, nor the authority to fund and deliver these services ourselves. Nor can we legally pick people up and ban them from our city – the Charter of Human Rights protects freedom of mobility, no matter who Kelowna elects to City Hall.
We as a community must fight FOR something rather than against. Collectively, our voices are stronger and louder when united. Fighting against building supportive housing sets us backwards. Name-calling, accusations, and anger is divisive, and wastes precious time that can be better used to cultivate sustainable, evidence based solutions. We must adopt solutions based in science and data – not emotions like fear.
What do we need to become relentless advocates for?
Rapid Access to Services: Add to the continuum of provincially funded addiction recovery services offered by our local health authority, Interior Health. Currently spaces are lacking and are difficult to navigate.
Low Barrier Housing with Wrap around Supports: Support facilities that offer medically prescribed and monitored substitution opiate treatments (Suboxone, Methadone etc) for anyone eligible as per the direction of medical professionals. This dramatically reduces the reliance of the illicit street drugs and in turn, reduces petty crime and serious drug related offenses.
Rapid Access Detox & Treatment Facilities: Reduce treatment wait times for those who choose sobriety by increasing capacity at facilities. Currently Kelowna has ZERO youth treatment beds and adult wait times vary from 2 – 6 months. It’s important to note that the success rate of residential treatment is low as addiction recovery is not linear – however, access needs to be rapid, fast and responsive. It’s important to acknowledge the ongoing campaign to build a youth recovery center that is currently unfunded.
Professional Care for High Needs Individuals: Individuals diagnosed with serious mental illness or other disabilities may require 24/7 medical care, monitoring, and clinical housing. We must end stigma and punishment of those who were exposed to drugs and alcohol before birth. Disabilities like FASD should be treated with medical professionalism.
Graded Step Facilities: Support programs to transition clients from low barrier to low income or abstinence based housing where people can move from detox/treatment to trauma healing, to in-depth counseling and skills-training where personal and social relationships can be built.
A fixed Safe Consumption Site(s): Although controversial in nature, by providing harm reduction at safe consumption sites reduces discarded needles and the spread of diseases like HIV. They provide an intervention point when users are ready for treatment, and reduces overdoses.
Early Prevention: Enhanced prenatal supports can identify young families at risk who may need to be supported emotionally or financially. Additionally, we can advocate for more social programs that fulfill young people’s fundamental need for connection, adult guidance, and self-esteem. We can work together to develop more opportunities for youth to achieve positive goals, and more spaces where they feel safe if their home life is precarious.
As a community, we know what our fellow citizens need. We see it every day. That means we have to lean on each other to become relentless advocates for social funding and resources. We must put differences aside and band together to lobby our senior governments and their associated ministries to prioritize solutions to overcome this humanitarian crisis together, as a team.
To be part of the solution, bring the needs of our community to our BC Government Ministries:
Minister of Health, Adrian Dix:
Minister of Mental Health & Addiction, Judy Darcy:
Minister of Housing & Municipal Affairs, Selina Robinson: