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Attorney General Eby discusses street issues, other challenges facing cities

Asked what he thinks about council’s motions — which included, among other proposals, requirement in some cases for wraparound services by BC Housing and for city and provincial counterparts to meet — David Eby said context is important, noting Kamloops is not the only community in the province struggling with visible street disorder.
David Eby
Attorney General and minister responsible for housing David Eby.

B.C.’s minister responsible for housing says the province recognizes challenges faced by cities grappling with street issues and has provided $100 million in funding to help communities in the short term, with plans for provincially funded complex care facilities to be built throughout the province in the long term.

“Obviously, things are very challenging in a lot of cities,” BC Housing Minister David Eby told KTW in an interview, noting recognition of the kinds of issues that led to motions passed recently by Kamloops city council aimed at improvements.

Asked what he thinks about council’s motions — which included, among other proposals, requirement in some cases for wraparound services by BC Housing and for city and provincial counterparts to meet — Eby said context is important, noting Kamloops is not the only community in the province struggling with visible street disorder.

“These problems that have been hidden for a long time are much more visible and they’re also worse because of the impacts of the COVID public health measures,” he said.

However, Eby also cautioned that problems that have arisen are temporary in nature and those involved are vulnerable. He said it is easy to accidentally swing public opinion against any kind of social housing in a community and to vilify people who are sick and homeless.

Eby said the province has committed to working with communities to ensure that doesn’t happen. He noted $100 million in funding via the Stronger Communities Fund, administered by the Union of BC Municipalities, to help cities with public washrooms, security, policing, outreach and other services.

In the long term, Eby said, the province is working with communities on complex care facilities, which he described as housing with health-care supports. Such supports, he said, were expected when the controversial Riverview mental-health hospital in Coquitlam was closed over a number of years, with the last of the patients leaving the facility in 2012.

But those supports never materialized.

Eby said the BC NDP government is rolling out that work with a “sense of urgency.” No timelines were provided, however, and Eby could not say whether Kamloops will be among locations chosen for such a complex care facility.

“We’re still in early discussions about the design of the facilities and the supports,” he said when asked if Kamloops will be chosen. “We’re relying on pulling together a lot of research that’s been done and some work from the Ministry of Health and different ministries. Once we have a more concrete proposal of what exactly these will look like and how they’re going to operate, then we’ll be having discussions with cities about where they should be located. These will be regional supports and it may make sense for it to be in Kamloops or it may make sense for it to be in another city.”

Mayors representing B.C.’s largest cities have called for such facilities. Eby said he is grateful Kamloops Mayor Ken Christian has been supportive of complex care.

Eby would not confirm if the province will pick up all of costs for wraparound services, but noted challenge around people who need “intensive supports,” with the costs split — municipalities face higher policing costs, while the province faces greater costs for courts, prisons and emergency rooms.

Eby said when adding up those costs, it is “dramatically cheaper” to house someone with more significant supports. Eby said complex care supports would be funded by the province and that the role of municipalities will be the “spirit of co-operation and partnership.”

Riverview was shuttered for many reasons, including abuse of its patients and a growing belief that community care is better than institutional care. However, since that time, many people with mental-health issues have wound up on city streets with no supports.

Asked if deinstitutionalization was a mistake, Eby said a series of mistakes led to the situation of today.

“One of them was certainly the deinstitutionalization of Riverview without putting the appropriate community supports in place,” Eby said. “And others included the dramatic underfunding of social services and supports, especially for youth in care for a period of more than a decade in our province, because those young people, when they left government care in incredible numbers, ended up homeless.

“And so we just added more and more and more people who had been living outside now for extended periods of time. It was a lot of short-term decision-making that landed us here and so it will take a bit of time to reverse, but I think with some concerted efforts between the province and municipalities, we can do it — and there’s a lot of goodwill out there right now to address this issue because of the visibility of the problem. That’s the silver lining of what we’re seeing out there right now.”

Addiction, mental-health supports

• Asked what more could be done to tackle addiction, given that it is connected to street issues and record overdose death numbers, Eby said his provincial counterpart, Minister of Addictions Sheila Malcolmson, is working around the clock to build out mental-health supports in the province, including treatment for addiction. He cited new beds across the province but conceded there is “more work to do.”

“There’s no question that there’s an opportunity for the provincial government to expand our drug treatment beds and our detox beds across the province, to support people who are in recovery,” he said. “Part of that, as well, is supportive housing for when people are through those kinds of programs.”

Eby said there is also a group of people that is not ready for treatment — and that is a harm to themselves and the broader community — that needs to be housed.

“We need to find ways to provide supportive housing for those folks so they can stabilize and hopefully we can get them into treatment and keep them alive,” he said.