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B.C. mayors want homes for people with severe mental health, addictions challenges

Mayors call for five sites across province, including two in Lower Mainland
B.C. mayors from 13 cities want the provincial government to open five housing sites that cater to people with severe needs related to mental health and addictions. File photo Dan Toulgoet
A coalition of 13 B.C. mayors wants the provincial government to open five “complex care” housing sites before the end of 2021 that cater to people with severe needs related to mental health and addictions.

The mayors want the housing to have up to 50 units each and be located on Vancouver Island, in the Interior, in the North and two in the Lower Mainland.

Victoria Mayor Lisa Helps, a co-chair of the B.C. Urban Mayors’ Caucus, said the proposal was pitched last week to Attorney General David Eby, who is also responsible for housing, and Sheila Malcolmson, the Minister of Mental Health and Addictions.

Helps said she came away from the virtual meetings “more optimistic than ever” that both ministers were willing to turn the idea into a reality.

More discussions, she said, are to come on possible sites, a health care strategy, cost and type of housing — whether it be modular, renovated existing buildings, or a combination.

“This is the first time that we’ve seen in ministerial mandate letters — both in Eby and Malcolmson’s — a call from the premier to create complex care housing,” Helps told Glacier Media.

“I think it’s clear to everybody across the political spectrum that despite all of the good investments that are being made in housing — and all of the people being housed — the people who have the most complex needs are being left on our streets, in our parks, in our downtowns. It’s not working for them, it’s not working for anyone.”

Helps defined “complex care housing” as a place for people who would get the necessary support they need, despite the severity of their mental health, addiction use, or both.

“Basically,” she said, “the people who are always evicted, yet they need to be inside somewhere. That’s really clear. It’s not good for anyone when people with these kinds of needs are living on the streets.”

In Victoria, an estimated 200 people are living in the city’s parks. Outlying areas of the city and other parts of the island, including Nanaimo, also have homeless populations.

Vancouver has about 750 people living on the street, with about 200 residing in the Strathcona Park encampment.

In Kelowna, Mayor Colin Basran estimated the homeless population at just over 300 people, with about 160 who don’t fit into the current supportive housing model in the province.

Basran, who is a co-chair with Helps on the mayors’ coalition, said the B.C. government’s creation of a cross-ministry committee to respond to homelessness gives him faith the mayors’ concerns about their vulnerable residents are being taken seriously.

“You can’t house and support complex needs’ residents with the work of just one ministry,” Basran said.

“You need Health, you need Mental Health and Addictions, you need Housing — you probably need more, but those are the three key ones. The fact that those ministries are now finally working together, I think is a big step in the right direction.”

Malcolmson said in an emailed statement that she understood the need for such type of housing and that government is working across ministries “and with all of our partners as quickly as possible” on developing a plan.

“Supportive housing is transforming the lives of thousands of people across the province who now have a home and the care they need,” the minister said.

“But after so many years where the old government gutted services and let homelessness skyrocket, there are people with very complex needs who require the higher level of care that complex care housing will provide – including more access to nurses and psychiatrists.”

The 13 mayors in the coalition, including Vancouver Mayor Kennedy Stewart, represent more than 55 per cent of B.C.'s population.