DOWNTOWN HOMELESSNESS

 
I think the new downtown residential development we are seeing will help to keep the downtown attractive and active, but downtown retail is suffering. Many people are fearful of coming downtown. Major harbour properties remain undeveloped after decades. My views on these issues differ from those of my council colleagues.

The following was written as an opinion article:

I have lived and worked in the City of Victoria for 30 years. My wife and I have chosen to raise our family in the city and to send our children to public schools here. The impact of what is happening in our downtown – open drug use, infected needles, panhandling, and urban camping – is very real to us and I am as frustrated as many others that nothing we try seems to help.More and more services are being offered to support the homeless and mentally ill – shelter beds, hot meals, drop-in centres. Yet the problem grows. We can blame other levels of government, but perhaps it is time to look at what we as a city are doing. By trying to bring care and comfort to the less fortunate are we in fact enabling the very behaviours we are trying to change? Are we encouraging people to leave their home communities because of Victoria’s services as well as our weather?As a council member I am asked to accept information about the issues that I would question in my “other” job as a professional economist. As an economist I know that incentives are powerful in shaping people’s behaviour, yet the possibility that our support systems, combined with our warm weather, may be drawing the vulnerable from other areas is hardly considered. Sometimes those close to the problem, often involved in delivering service, are too close to judge clearly what is needed and what is not.

Of course it is difficult to enforce laws against drug use, aggressive panhandling and street camping when there is no adequate treatment for mental illness or addiction and no solution to poverty. When we see people in distress it is a natural reaction to try and help. But enough resources will never be made available as long as we paper over problems by providing unconditional day-to-day maintenance and services to everyone who seeks them, whether they are the mentally ill and the drug addicted, or just people making bad choices because the services are there.

We should be asking if, with the best of good will, we are addressing short term needs but making conditions worse in the long term by “warehousing” those with true needs in the parks, streets, squares, back alleys and church halls of the City. Are we simply reducing the pressure for the Provincial government to accept its health care, treatment and housing responsibilities?

Are we also allowing the federal government to postpone writing realistic and publicly supported drug laws? We have given up enforcing drug possession laws downtown (neither the needle exchange nor the proposed safe injection site could exist if we did). As a result I can watch a young woman stick a needle in her arm on the same steps of a downtown office building where she would be fined for smoking a cigarette. We accept that laws restricting smoking can work to change behaviour – why are unwilling to restrict use of drugs that may be much more harmful?

And every needle drug user must find hundreds of dollars a day – it is a mathematical certainty that much of that comes from panhandling, prostitution and petty crime. As a result, the social problems in our downtown are beginning to dominate how visitors view our city, whether they are tourists from Toronto or shoppers from Central Saanich.

As businesses and shoppers leave the downtown fewer of us are left to carry these social burdens, and our political influence diminishes. Most voters can avoid exposure to unpleasant reality by simply not coming downtown. New suburban malls re-create the urban experience on private land where behaviour can still be controlled.

No one disputes that the problems of the downtown are complex, or that the upper levels of government bear most of the responsibility for conditions that appear in other cities too. But parts of the downtown are troubled and the trouble is spreading. Simply blaming others or letting the “experts” tell us to do more of what clearly has not been working is no solution. We must at least debate the question of whether the policies that we advocate as a city council and the way we spend our money are helping or hurting all of us.

Because the proposed Ellice Street emergency shelter was a significant issue for council I made some notes for my remarks at the council meeting dealing with the project (written around July 24, 2008):

The Emergency Shelter

WE are in the unusual position of being both advocate of this project and judge. This is difficult, which is why I opposed signing the memorandum of agreement with the Province before hearing from the public.

After hearing from the public, both for and against the project, I am not able to support this rezoning. I am happy to see a response from the Province to address some of the issues facing Victoria, but I do not believe this response is the right one.

I should be frank that I am not in agreement with the approach that the majority of council has taken about how to address downtown issues.

I think everyone agrees that we have concerns about some of the behaviours we are seeing in the downtown and in areas around the downtown. Most people agree that those problems are getting worse, not better.

The view of the majority of the council has been that, despite the fact what we have been doing does not seem to have been working, we should continue to do what we have been doing, and do more of it. My view is that we should admit the possibility that some of what we have been doing has been making the problem worse, not better, and we should reconsider some of our policies. The policy I disagree with is that we should do everything we can to address short term needs – a meal, a place to sleep, a place to watch television and drink a cup of coffee – even when we do not have the resources available to address the underlying causes of the individual’s needs – drug or alcohol addiction, mental illness or simply lack of life skills. We are warehousing people, in other words, making it more possible to live on the streets but not addressing true needs. The result is, unsurprisingly, ever more people living in our downtown doorways, parks, cemeteries and vacant lots. We could find emergency shelter space for every one of them and more would soon appear, drawn to Victoria from elsewhere, or worse, drawn to the street community simply because it is here and it represents a way to avoid addressing issues.

Many of the true treatment programs we need do not need to be located near our downtown, indeed should not be located near a downtown.

What we need is drug and alcohol addiction treatment, not just meals and needles, permanent supportive housing, not emergency shelters.

But as long as we are prepared to offer Band-Aids and to absorb the problems that result from ignoring the issue the higher levels of government that control funding and legislation will have no incentive to act.

I am happy to see the Province taking an interest in the issue, but I believe this building will not go far enough to solve the issues we face. I believe it is too big and will be a focus of disturbance.

I believe its ratio of emergency shelter beds to transition beds is too high – yes, in the future emergency beds could be turned into transition beds, but the opposite could also happen, making the related problems bigger yet. I am concerned that the emergency shelter space could be expanded at the cost of space devoted to the treatment programs we need so badly.

It may be too far from the downtown to allow us to direct people to it from doorways and parks .

Remember that the location of this shelter was determined not by an analysis of need or of optimal size but simply because the City has a park here that the council was willing to donate to the Provincial government. WE are told the value of the park is under a million dollars – this is a saving to Provincial government, but pretty small in the context of the cost of the shelter. If it is staffed as we are promised with 38 FTE’s it will cost at least $2 to $3 million a year to operate. The location is a false economy.

I applaud the Province for taking a step to address issue, but I believe that on balance this project does not achieve the right balance of objectives and that the location is wrong.

The following was written as an opinion article:

A safe injection site

Time and again we have been told that the “experts” support a safe drug consumption site for Victoria, and a majority of our City Council agrees – but by my reading of the evidence from Vancouver’s supervised injection site (“In-site”) and elsewhere the case for a safe injection site in Victoria is not so clear.

The Expert Advisory Committee on Supervised Injection Site Research tells us Vancouver’s Insite may prevent about one overdose fatality per year, but the Expert Committee does not know whether the same $3 million per year spent on outreach or drug treatment courts would be more effective still. Surprisingly, it says there is no direct evidence that Insite reduces rates of HIV infection, and proving effectiveness one way or the other would need more information about drug users’ practices away from Insite. We can’t even be sure that Insite cuts down greatly on publicly discarded syringes because most injections do not take place there.

No one doubts that more resources for treatment and support are needed – but Insite is not designed to cure users of addiction. Money spent on a Victoria Insite would be money that is not going to programs that could achieve long-term improvement for the addicted and the mentally ill.

The health of our downtown should also be considered. The Expert Advisory Committee report tells us Insite has not been shown to increase crime, but it also tells us that typical injection drug users must steal close to $350,000 in property a year to get the $35,000 cash that on average they need to support their habit. Crime victims are as necessary to Insite as are nurses and needles.

To support other social service and health agencies Victoria’s city council has shown a willingness to fast-track zoning procedures, donate parkland, earmark staff time, give city grants and property tax relief, even delay public input until major decisions have been made. Yet many people tell me they don’t think our present policies are working. They recognize that we need fundamental changes in Canada’s approach to homelessness, mental illness and drug use, but meanwhile they see a declining quality of life in the central city that is driving away shoppers, tourists and families. Keith Martin’s proposal in this newspaper for European style prescription narcotics program may or may not work, but at least it offers a chance for users to participate in a program that can and should be operated far from the drug dealers and drug culture of the downtown.

Even Insite supporters do not claim it represents anything more than a band aid that hopes to limit harm. Before asking Victorians where we should be putting our own Insite (should the federal government grant the Council’s request), perhaps we should ask whether it is what we need.