Rob Douglas addresses visible homelessness, mental health and the overdose crisis

The BC NDP candidate for the Cowichan Valley says it will take everyone coming together to find solutions.

Housing affordability, poverty, homelessness, mental health and addiction — by any measure these are key issues in the Cowichan Valley region. A constituency assistant in Cowichan Valley MLA Sonia Furstenau’s office says more than half the people who come for help come for those sorts of concerns, with an inability to find housing the most common problem.

The Discourse has surveyed this community multiple times, and homelessness consistently ranks as a top concern. And the most visible tip of this housing crisis is on the streets of Duncan’s urban core, where visible drug use, crime and public safety have come to the forefront of public concern. 

“The majority of the calls that I’ve gotten as mayor since I’ve started is about this issue,” City of Duncan Mayor Michelle Staples said in an interview with The Discourse last month. The Cowichan Leadership Group — including representatives from municipal governments, Cowichan Tribes, the Cowichan Valley Regional District, the provincial government, the federal government, the Cowichan Valley School District board and RCMP — have collaborated to strongly lobby the provincial government for support and action. The Municipality of North Cowichan and the City of Duncan are implementing a Safer Community Plan to add security and other supports for businesses and neighbourhoods along the highway corridor. 

Most recently, Island Health’s plan to relocate and expand services at its Overdose Prevention Site has met some community resistance. Critics say the location of the wellness centre is too close to schools and may exacerbate issues in an already-troubled neighbourhood. 

In light of this, The Discourse reached out to MLA candidates in the Cowichan Valley riding, which includes the Duncan core, to ask about their plans to tackle these issues. BC Liberal Party candidate Tanya Kaul declined the interview request. She has addressed the issue in a Facebook post, and at a public forum pledged that a Liberal government would pause the wellness centre project for public consultations. (The BC College of Family Physicians rated the Liberal Party’s election promises regarding the overdose crisis a six out of 10, while ranking the NDP and Greens each 10 out of 10.)

Both BC Green Party candidate Sonia Furstenau and BC NDP candidate Rob Douglas answered The Discourse’s questions on this issue at length, including questions we heard from community members. Here are the responses from Rob Douglas, lightly edited for length and clarity. Read Sonia Furstenau’s responses to a similar set of questions here.

Jacqueline Ronson: Mental health addictions, housing – these are all provincial responsibilities. And we’re seeing, over the past few years, these problems just grow and get more out of control. And I’m wondering if you can tell me what has happened in our community and what has happened in our province?

Rob Douglas: Growing up here in the Cowichan Valley, it’s definitely not something that I was used to. It’s really been in recent years that these issues have really exploded. But I think the important part to keep in mind is, this didn’t all happen by accident. 

Under the BC Liberals there were policy choices that were made that have had long-term repercussions. Especially on the housing front — We had almost 20 years where the BC Liberals made a decision not to invest in social housing and, for those who need it most, not invest in the treatment and counselling and supports. 

And with the overdose crisis, they waited until 2016 before declaring a public health emergency, and even during that time cut the number of treatment beds. There were years and years of these bad choices that have had long-term repercussions not only for our community, but communities right across British Columbia. 

In terms of the response, when John Horgan’s government came into power 36 months ago, one of the first things they did was appoint a minister for mental health and addictions. And that’s the only one in Canada and the first ever in B.C. So you’ve got a minister waking up every morning trying to figure out how to address these complex issues around mental health and addictions and homelessness, which are interrelated. And complex — not every person experiencing homelessness necessarily has mental health or addictions issues, just like everyone with addiction issues isn’t necessarily homeless. But these issues are clearly interrelated. 

To date the government’s invested over $300 million trying to tackle this complex problem. It’s not something you can fix overnight. There’s no one silver bullet but we are attacking it from multiple fronts and there has been progress in the last three years. 

The number of overdoses were finally starting to come down. Although with COVID-19 it’s shot back up again, as we’ve got more isolation and loneliness. That’s one of the big issues with the overdose crisis is when people are using on their own, that there’s a higher chance of overdosing. We’ve already got five times as many deaths from overdoses as we do from COVID-19. I think that’s all the more reason why we’ve got to continue to escalate our response and just build on the groundwork we’ve laid over these last 36 months.

JR: Island Health put out a report a couple years ago on overdose prevention sites on the Island. And it says that communication, education, stigma are all issues that need to be dealt with for these sites to be successful. And yet now we have municipalities, including North Cowichan, neighbours, businesses, all saying, “Island Health isn’t talking to us. They’re not listening to us.” And the level of conflict around [the wellness centre] site tells me that Island Health hasn’t really addressed the problem of education and communication adequately. And I’m wondering what you would do as a representative for this community to improve that?

JR: You mentioned stigma. There’s a lot of people who are experiencing homelessness right now who are facing addictions, mental health challenges — but I think the important part to keep in mind is that it’s affecting us right across society. It’s people’s moms and dads and their kids and their co-workers who are all also facing real issues related to mental health and addictions. 

That’s why it’s so important that the government continues to take steps to reduce that stigma. So even these last 36 months, there has been a strong emphasis on public awareness around this. John Horgan’s government has put a strong emphasis on just reducing that stigma, because that’s so important if people are going to go out and get that treatment. 

And I think it’s important as well to work with these outside organizations, non-profit organizations like the Canadian Mental Health Association, or like the Vancouver Canucks or the BC Lions. I think government needs to continue to work with these outside groups to raise that awareness and reduce the stigma, so that if somebody is facing a mental health or an addictions challenge, they’re not ashamed of it, and they’re willing to go out there and access the supports that are available. 

Because we know that a lot of these overdoses, it’s because people are alone at home. And there’s no one there to catch them if they’ve overdosed and really need that help. 

You mentioned the communications as well. I don’t see how anyone can deny that we need these supports, whether it’s counselling or treatment or recovery. But I think it is important as well that we’ve got that communication — whether it’s government or Vancouver Island Health Authority and the broader community, especially neighbourhoods. It’s definitely an area where there needs to be improvements made, and that’s something I’d want to focus on as MLA. 

I think that’s really the MLA’s job to provide that role. And to make sure there is that communication between when these facilities are put in place. And then the community and neighbourhoods are on board. Because people need to feel safe in accessing the services. But I think communities need to feel safe as well.

wellness centre
Don Hatton speaks in front of a crowd at Quamichan School, where people gathered on Sept. 19 to protest the proposed location of a wellness and recovery centre. Photo by Jacqueline Ronson

JR: You say it’s the MLA’s job — what specifically would you do to improve those lines of communication?

RD: You mentioned the recovery and wellness centre proposed for Duncan right now. And one thing that I, if I’m your MLA, that I’m going to be doing is bringing back John Horgan to meet with people in the community face to face. 

And actually, John Horgan was just here a couple weeks ago when he was with me making the big announcement on the funding for the new hospital. And we actually met with some of the parents who expressed concerns about the location of the new facility. John’s committed to come back and meet with those parents face to face, meet with other leaders in the community, as well as just figuring out something that’s gonna work for everybody. 

And I’ve been in communication with those parents — I just met with them myself face-to-face yesterday. I’ve been out as part of the needle pickup crew with some of the local business owners. I’ve talked to health professionals and doctors who are working with many of the people experiencing these challenges. I’ve talked to people in our community who are currently homeless and facing mental health and addiction challenges. 

I think we can all agree we need the services, but I think if we’re gonna do it in a way where everybody’s on board, we’ve got to come together and sit down and figure out something that’s gonna work for everyone. I’m committed to doing that, John’s committed to doing that. And it’s something I’m looking forward to, if I’m the MLA, to do shortly after the election.

JR: Is changing the location something that would be on the table?

RD: From my perspective, everything is up for discussion right now. But I think we’ve got to keep in mind, people need these services. 

JR: A fear that I hear from community members is that if you put services in this community, it’s going to attract people and behaviour that might not be assets to the community. And I got a question from somebody who said, “Are similar investments for facilities being made in other Island communities to encourage Island Health and [Canadian Mental Health Association] clients to stay in their local communities?” I’m wondering if you can address that.

RD: Yes, so the response over these last three-and-a-half years has been province-wide. So there’s been an over $300 million investment. 

What’s important to keep in mind is that we’ve got almost two decades where a previous government of the BC Liberals did not make these investments. So this government, John Horgan’s government, has had to make up a lot of ground in a very short period. 

Obviously a lot of adults need to access these services. But there is a strong emphasis right now, from this government, on child and youth mental health supports. And having those multidisciplinary teams in place to provide those wraparound supports — better training for mental health care … more of a focus on community based solutions, more treatment, more harm reduction options. 

And also working with First Nations who have had to deal with trauma from residential schools and systemic racism and colonization. This government’s putting a strong emphasis on working with the First Nations Health Authority to provide that support. So we’ve got First Nations-led initiatives to respond to some of these challenges. 

Another big part of it is the supportive housing, and providing those 24-7 wraparound supports. This government has made a record $7 billion investment in affordable housing. We’ve already got almost 4,000 supportive housing units either completed or underway across the province, and 130 of them here in the Cowichan Valley. There’s no one silver bullet solution, but this is gonna make a big difference. 

So we’re getting those three housing projects, including one in North Cowichan, which is going to provide that permanent supportive housing for people who need it most. But then also those 24-7 wraparound supports, including employment programs to get people back on their feet. 

And that’s moving ahead very quickly. It’s modular housing. It’s not gonna solve all the problems overnight. But it’s investments like that that are gonna make a big difference.

JR: Is there truth to that fear or, or evidence, that if we put services here, it could make the problem worse?

RD: I think if we were the only community that was acting on it — but it’s a provincial response. So we know there’s supportive housing investments in Victoria and Nanaimo and the Lower Mainland and right across the province. It’s not like the Cowichan Valley’s the only community that’s getting these supports coming down the pike. 

JR: The direct cause of people dying at such a high rate right now is the poisoned drug supply. [Provincial Health Officer Dr.] Bonnie Henry said years ago, decriminalization needs to happen. The province seems to be waiting for the federal government even though Bonnie Henry says there’s ways for the province to move ahead anyway. What would you do as MLA on that side of the issue?

RD: With regards to the toxic drug supply, we know that’s gotten worse since COVID-19. So under this government, there has been more flexibility given to health care professionals to prescribe those safer alternatives. There was just recently an advisory about toxic drug supply, here in the Cowichan Valley. Yes, I think having those safer alternatives is an important part of it. 

And then with the decriminalization, John Horgan’s government has been quite vocal on this, and it has been pushing hard with the federal government to move towards decriminalizing the possession of small amounts of these substances by people facing addictions. 

This is a position that’s supported by police chiefs right across Canada. With the idea being, if we can move away from charging these individuals with small possession and really putting a strong emphasis on treatment options, and then redirecting police resources to really cracking down on the drug dealers and the hard criminals. 

What this government’s proposing right now is new funding for frontline mental health workers. We’ve seen with a lot of our police forces across Canada, including in the Cowichan Valley — more and more they’re focusing their resources on dealing with mental health and addictions-related issues, which has never been the intent with our police forces. And if we can get more mental health and addictions frontline workers out there, taking the pressure off — and then you can free up your police to again, really crack down on the drug dealers and the hard criminals who are really making this problem worse.

defund police
A protester calls for defunding police at a rally in support of Black Lives Matter on June 12, 2020 in Duncan. The conversation around defunding police has centred in part on taking police out of mental health and overdose crisis response. Photo by Jacqueline Ronson

JR: If decriminalization is a priority for the province and police chiefs, why hasn’t it happened yet? The Duncan/North Cowichan statistics show that officers are still regularly arresting people for possession. 

RD: My understanding is it’s the Federal Criminal Code, and that the changes that we’re going to need are gonna have to be made at the federal level. John Horgan stated a number of times that he’s really pushing hard for changes at the federal level.

JR: Don’t police have the authority to say whether or not they arrest someone for a crime? [Some police forces, including in Vancouver and Victoria, say their policy is not to routinely arrest for simple drug possession.]

RD: My understanding is that they are bound by the Criminal Code in determining what constitutes a drug offence, although I understand that the police do work with Crown Counsel on determining when to press charges.

JR: I got another question from a community member who asked, “How do we get people to seek out quality info?” And I think that’s part of a bigger question about, how do we build evidence based policy and how do we get popular support for evidence based policy? What would you say to that?

RD: I think part of it goes back to what we discussed earlier about the stigma. We know that not all but many people experiencing homelessness are facing addictions and mental health issues. 

The opioid crisis affects people from all walks of life. It’s, like I said, our moms and our dads and our brothers and sisters and our kids who are facing this. I was just talking to a mom last week who lost her son due to a drug overdose. And yet, that’s just one of 5,000 people in this province who have lost their lives to this since 2016.

I know that John Horgan’s government is working with WorkSafeBC on finding other options for workplace related injuries. In some cases you might have construction workers who have faced some kind of workplace injury and then in trying to treat that pain, next thing you know you’ve developed this opioid addiction. 

And I think reducing that stigma through public awareness is a big part of it. Then just recognizing that it’s not just one single group that’s being affected by this opioid crisis, that it’s tearing through people from all walks of life. And it’s not just impacting the Cowichan Valley or B.C. We’re seeing that right across North America communities have been impacted by this crisis.

JR: One thing I’ve heard from people who are entrenched in this is, is that we haven’t done a good job catching people before they fall and doing preventative mental health. What’s the NDP’s plan to do better on that side of things?

RD: There’s a stronger focus now with this government on child and youth mental health supports. So, for example, having mental health teams in the school districts, or we’ve also got these Foundry youth centres across B.C., which provide targeted supports for youth between the ages of 12 to 24. 

And the idea there is, rather than leaving these young people to face these mental health challenges, which in many cases turn into addiction challenges later in life, to try to address it early on at a younger age, and to get them the right support and treatment they need. 

That’s been a big focus these last 36 months. And I know it’s going to continue to be a big focus over the next four years — to just work with nonprofit organizations, work with school districts to provide young people with these supports with our kids and our adolescents and young adults, so they can get the help they need early on in life before things start to spiral out of control.

JR: Anything else you want to add?

If I could just make one last point. With responding to the challenges we’re facing right now, with opioids, with addictions, mental health and the need for supportive housing for homelessness. My view of how government is responding to this is building on what NDP governance [has done in past] decades. 

The NDP, under Tommy Douglas, were the ones who brought us our universal health care system. So we’ve got this long history of caring for one another, caring for people and we’ve been fighting this fight for a long time. And I think this government is the best positioned to continue that fight over the coming years and to really provide people who need the supports with the help that they need. [end]

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