Nanaimo Mayor Leonard Krog doesn’t mince words when he talks about what Canadian cities need to do to deal with overlapping crises — COVID-19, drug overdoses, mental health and addiction issues, and housing affordability.
“Either we fix this with compassion,” he said, “or those who have none will deal with it. Or, worst of all, we will complete our descent into lawless barbarism because that is what you have described.”
Krog was responding to my column about an apparent rape in broad daylight at the heart of Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside.
“A public rape in a major city in Canada?” he said over the phone. “How can anybody rape someone in a public place and in the society where it happens is not some obscure place, but one of the most desirable places to live in the world? It’s repugnant.”
The Nanaimo mayor isn’t just tossing pebbles from a safe seat across the pond. His Vancouver Island port city of 100,000 has long had a drug problem. It’s also long had a homeless crisis with an estimated 600 homeless living in parks scattered in and around the city.
Early Friday morning, a fire at the oldest and largest encampment a few blocks from Nanaimo City Hall led to the camp’s evacuation and closure. Fortunately, no one was injured.
It was the third fire this fall at the tent city, which coincidentally is only a few hundred metres from the constituency office of MLA Sheila Malcolmson. Last week, she was sworn as British Columbia’s new minister of mental health and addictions.
The first step, Krog said, is that senior levels of government have to acknowledge the depth and complexity of the problems at the intersection of crises playing out on city streets and help them. (He admits feeling guilty that he didn’t do more during his five terms as a five-term, NDP member of the legislature.)
To do that, they need to get past partisan sniping because they’ve all been complicit in underfunding services from when they closed “mental institutions” in favour of community care, cut spending on social housing and failed to deliver the drug strategy known as the Four Pillars plan of prevention, policing, harm reduction and treatment.
Krog’s proposed second step is to create small, secure (a.k.a. locked down) community facilities for people with the worst mental health problems and the most deeply entrenched addictions.
“Why is it that we have no trouble as society — and we know it’s the right thing — to place seniors with dementia in locked-down facilities?” Krog asked. “But we do not do that for a 45 year-old, brain-injured schizophrenic with an addiction living in the streets like a stray dog and getting about as much love?”
The B.C. ombudsperson has suggested that might be too many. But, Pivot Legal Society has recommended that it could be easily dealt with by having an independent mental health review board decide who can be detained.
The less esoteric, but more pressing issue, raised when the B.C. youth amendment was proposed is the critical shortage of services that youth can voluntarily access. The same is true for adults, especially women.
It’s there at the intersection of concern about the daily needs of the mentally ill, addicted and homeless that there is broad consensus that governments could use to build a comprehensive and humane strategy.
Too many people have died. More are dying each day. Too many lives are being ruined. Too many people live in misery, squalor and fear without hope for a better day ahead.
There needs to be a better day ahead because the present is deplorable.
Yet, even talking about secured housing for those with mental disorders and addictions has put Krog — a five-term, former NDP MLA — at odds with civil libertarians including many in Premier John Horgan’s government.
“In the civil libertarian community, people think I’m calling for a return to Nurse Ratched and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” he said.“ But until we do something, people will continue to live in hell on our streets and make it hell for many others.”
So far, civil libertarians appear to be winning.
In July, John Horgan’s then-minority NDP government withdrew changes to the act that would have allowed youth who had overdosed to be held in hospital for up to seven days so that there would be time to connect them with voluntary care.
Opponents called it “coercive health care” that can “perpetuate colonial state policies and reinforce inequities” and a “severe infringement on constitutional rights.”
If it’s the constitutional issue that’s holding things up, governments could ask the Supreme Court of Canada for a ruling.
Certainly, there’s lots of precedent. Most, if not all, provinces’ mental health acts already allow involuntary detention for people with severe psychosis, schizophrenia, suicidal ideation and psychosis with concurrent opioid addiction disorder.
The most recent B.C. data from 2018 indicates that 15,711 people were held involuntarily that year and 12.3 per cent of them were under the age of 19.