Photo by Ray Hudson
Photo by Ray Hudson

Surrey: When Riverview Hospital in Coquitlam was functioning, there was a large critical mass of services for the mentally ill.   There was a confluence of different skill sets there. Then we broke it all up under the guise of moving the patients to services in their home communities. Unfortunately Riverview was disbanded but the development of appropriate community services did not follow. MLA Sue Hammell, Opposition Critic For Mental Health, points to solutions developed in Red Deer Alberta, that may be applied to BC’s homeless population.

“We spend huge amounts of money on mental health, but we spend it in the most ineffective and cruel way,” says Hammell. “At least fifty percent of the people in our penal institutions are mentally ill and/or are addicted, where years ago they would have been in Riverview. Now the seriously mentally ill are incarcerated after having gone through a judicial system which costs money, they’ve gone through the health care system, which costs money. If they’re not incarcerated and they’re not in the judicial system, many of them are in hospitals or our police are looking after them because they’re in the streets.

Hammell says that 25% – 30% of police time is spent dealing with people who are mentally ill. She points to the recent shooting of a man by police at the Safeway on 104th in Surrey.

“So they’re in the health care system or getting the services from police, fire or ambulance, they’re in the judicial system, the penal institutions and the social services system. Does that make sense? One taxpayer. So you’re spending the money but spending it reacting to behaviour that is undesirable from your world view, and it clearly doesn’t work,” she claimed.

“Let’s talk about Red Deer, Alberta,” Hammell said. “I followed this discussion over the Christmas holidays, where in a population of sixty-one thousand, they had twelve-hundred homeless people on the streets. Over a period of three years, I believe, they’ve cut the number to zero. They don’t have any homeless on the streets anymore because they housed them.” She went on to describe how one social worker rescued one person who was homeless, mentally ill, and who slept outside under cars. After finding him accommodation, his social worker brought him back to his home twenty-seven times before he finally stayed off the street, he now has a job and he’s doing something productive.

“The mayor doesn’t consider himself to be a bleeding heart liberal,” said Hammell, “He explained that what these people need to understand is that you’ll never give up on them. And by that approach they now have housed their homeless.”

“It’s a housing first policy,” she said. “You stabilize people by giving them housing. It costs us $75,000 a year to keep somebody in jail. Can’t we do better than that? At the Phoenix Society, their Executive Director Michael Wilson, will tell you that it costs $13,000 a year for some of the people in that housing. You have to build housing, you have to bring people inside and if you support them as they move through, they have a much greater chance of success.”

Hammell said that Riverview has just opened up more housing moved from Burnaby where they sold land adding 14 more beds to a 40 space program, which works with people to help them build new lifestyles and reintroduce them to their own communities.

“I simply don’t believe we don’t have the money,” she said. “Rather, we are absolutely incompetent in the way we spend it on the mentally ill. If police are involved, that’s funded by the municipality. If courts, the health system and the jails are involved, the province pays. And for most people in the system, it’s just a revolving door.”

As to the question that a Riverview-type facility be created, Hammell said that she didn’t think anyone would want to go back to the system where people were just warehoused.

“I think you do need a campus of excellence, and Riverview is accepted by its community,” she said. “If you have a psychiatric ward in a hospital, the tendency, as with sick people in the other wards, is to move them out. I don’t think there’s anyone who would deny the fact that there’s a need for people to be protected from themselves, and to protect others. At the same time, you also want to create services inside the community so people can stay close to their families, friends and their support network. It’s a combination of both.”

“So I think there are two things we have to do,” she concluded. “We have to get ahead of the issue, we have to pay attention to our young people, rethink what we’re doing to people here, then look at the success of the Red Deer, Alberta program. Their social system is not the same as in BC, but we are spending the money now. We’re just not doing it intelligently.”