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A radical balloon

At a recent Squamish council meeting, a member of the community spoke out regarding the proposed Riverstones development across the street from his property.

At a recent Squamish council meeting, a member of the community spoke out regarding the proposed Riverstones development across the street from his property. He was under the impression that it was a homeless shelter rather than affordable rental housing for the community (a mistake that can be forgiven considering the amount of information available at the time). But one thing he said stuck a chord with me - "I'm not sure Squamish has a homeless problem as much as we have a problem with addiction and mental health issues."

It's a point worth considering as communities around the province - and especially Vancouver - struggle to get a grasp on a growing homeless population.

As the 2010 Games approach and downtown is redeveloped, it's likely that Vancouver's homeless issue is getting worse instead of better. It's also certain that visitors and media from around the world are going to notice all the homeless and panhandlers on the street and pass judgment, to the city's everlasting embarrassment. Throwing fuel on the fire, homeless advocates are already planning mass protests with the goal of making Vancouver and B.C. appear heartless, something that international media will dutifully report.

There's a certain desperation in the air. At the Federation of Canadian Municipalities annual conference in Whistler, Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson called on the federal government to immediately release stimulus spending to allow the city to go ahead with social housing projects: "The world will come and there is no doubt that people will ask questions about the state of our city," he said, "and we need a story about how we are addressing these problems."

When I read that a little voice at the back of my mind went back to that Squamish Council meeting, and the larger question of whether the real problem is the lack of affordable beds or substance abuse issues, as well as mental illnesses that may or may not be related to drugs and alcohol. After all, no sober, sane person would really choose to live in the streets... would they?

The answer to that question is probably, sadly, yes, but one has to wonder how many of our homeless are truly victims of circumstance - kids running away from dangerous homes, women leaving abusive husbands, people with serious mental health issues not fitting in, low income individuals and families losing their jobs and their ability to pay rent or mortgages - and how much of the misery is self-inflicted?

That sets the tone for the current debate in Vancouver, sparked by a column by Ethan Barron in The Province and comments made by former health minister George Abbott: whether the public and the addicts themselves might be better-served in the long-run by locking addicts away until they are clean.

It's not a new idea, even for B.C., but conditional sentencing is rare and very few people passing through the courts are diverted into mandatory treatment programs. That could change very quickly if we amend the official policy, and from there it would be simple to speed up the healing process.

That's because addicts are easy targets. And since possession and public intoxication are technically illegal, a police raid on East Hastings would be like shooting in fish in a barrel.

With the right system in place, addicts could be apprehended, evaluated, and sent to centres where they are provided with medical and psychological assistance to get through withdrawal, as well as a chance to reconcile with friends and family, and the material support they need to get on with their lives. People could even check themselves in on a voluntary basis, as long as they understand that there's no getting out without a doctor's signature.

While I believe that this kind of action is long overdue, that forced rehabilitation is likely the best and most cost-effective way to cure people of their addictions, the timing of the current discussion makes me a little uncomfortable.

Was Abbott releasing a trial balloon when he spoke to the media on this topic, gauging public opinion for a major change in the way we deal with addicts? If so, I have to wonder if this is part of the province's larger plan to clean up the streets before the 2010 Games.

Given that the current system seems destined to fail no matter how many millions of dollars we pump into the social network, people are ready for a different approach.

But should this really be an Olympic legacy? Will the image of homeless addicts being rounded up and sent to rehabilitation centres seem benevolent or sinister, like something China might do with dissidents? Are we motivated by a sincere desire to help, or out of fear of being embarrassed on the world stage? And if we help addicts into treatment and off the streets, does it really matter why we changed the rules?

Whatever happens we are due for a change in policy, and forced rehab is one thing we haven't tried yet. It would cost a lot of money, at first, to set up treatment centres around the province. But studies show we'll save money in the long run when it comes to policing and imprisonment costs, maintaining social services for the homeless, and health care expenditures for people that are prone to overdoses and getting sick, injured, beaten up and infected with disease at a higher rate than the rest of the population.

But not now. Not while the world is watching.