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Les Leyne: Homeless addicts are overwhelming NDP’s solutions

“You used to say you had all the answers. Now you’re in government and everything is worse.
A detail of the B.C. legislature building in downtown Victoria.

“You used to say you had all the answers. Now you’re in government and everything is worse.”

The remark Monday in the legislature could have been made by any politician anywhere who has been ousted from power and is now watching former critics run the show.

But in B.C, in 2020 on at least one particular issue, it struck home. Because by a number of measures, it’s simply true.

NDP critics spent years accosting the former B.C. Liberal government for ignoring homelessness and the drug crisis that is driving much of it. Three years ago they got their chance to show what they could do. Despite a steady blizzard of announcements and news releases about all the expensive new efforts underway, there’s scant evidence that they’re making much progress.

It was North Vancouver Liberal MLA Jane Thornthwaite who made the observation above. She supplied chilling background numbers that bring home the enormity of what’s happening. One of them related to overdoses is particularly acute.

The NDP created a standalone Ministry of Mental Health and Addictions when it took over, with a mandate to make “substantive progress” on an “immediate response” to the opioid crisis. Even before the pandemic struck, the number of overdose fatalities was holding steady. And even though COVID-19 has hit B.C. relatively lightly to date and had much less impact on the street community than you might have expected, drug overdoses deaths are at their highest levels ever. A handful of deaths every single day is the new standard. The only noticeable measure of success is the number of deaths averted. Thornthwaite cited a CBC report that on one day in June, first responders across B.C. dealt with 131 overdoses, presumably saving most of them. She said in July they clocked 2,700 overdose reports, 87 a day.

It’s stunning to realize the potential death toll if hundreds of first responders weren’t out administering thousands of life-saving remedies.

It’s a similar story with homelessness. Despite pouring millions of dollars into new housing — in a controversial, heavy-handed fashion when it comes to Victoria — it’s the same perennial topic of conversation and anxiety among taxpayers it has been for years.

The NDP critics of years past had all the answers. Now they have all the power to implement them, but they aren’t taking effect to the degree they thought they would.

“Homelessness is up,” said Thornthwaite, who has done a lot of committee work on mental health issues. “Community disorder is up. Break-ins are up, vandalism is up, assaults are up, open drug use and drug paraphernalia in parks are up.”

There was new data this week that supported Social Development Minister Shane Simpson’s admission a few weeks ago that homelessness is on the upswing. The point-in-time count in metro Vancouver showed jumps of varying degrees across that region. More striking is that it is spreading across B.C. to the point where virtually every community is grappling with it. Simpson, who left an impression quite different from the one put out by the government’s housing statistics, estimated there are about 40 homeless camps around B.C.

The Opposition has cited dozens of instances of downtown residents and businesses having to deal with the fallout. People are afraid to work alone, they’re witnessing violence and theft on a daily basis, clients have to step over comatose addicts lying in the street and on and on.

All the above and more was presented to Housing Minister Selina Robinson on Monday. Her response was the traditional one used by every first-term government: “Frankly, it’s because B.C. Liberals didn’t do what they needed to do on this file.”

Robinson said they’re starting to make progress and there’s a ten-year-plan. True enough. But four-year governments coming up with ten-year plans is just as silly as a three-year-old government blaming its failures on its predecessors. The NDP in opposition knew how intractable addiction and homelessness issues were, but they left the impression all it would take to ease those two crises was their commitment to make things right.

That impression now looks to be completely erroneous.

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