Comment: Complex-care housing could help solve the B.C. dilemma

British Columbians have been battling a pandemic for the past 10 months, doing everything we can to keep our communities safe. On the sidelines of COVID-19 another crisis continues to rage, and it’s reached a tipping point in our communities.

A deadly drug supply and the effects of untreated addictions and severe mental illness are visible daily on our streets, doorways, in our parks, and — in more remote and rural areas — in forests and secluded places where people are a long way from help.

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Many of our downtowns are struggling as a result. But this is not only a big-city issue; it’s a major issue that was identified by all the area associations that represent local governments large and small, urban and rural across the province.

Across British Columbia, we are seeing historic investments from the province to build more ­affordable housing which is serving the needs of many people. Yet even with this unprecedented effort, ­people with complex needs are falling through the cracks and aren’t being served by the ­supportive housing models and programs currently available.

These challenges in our communities are expanding faster than the solutions. Without the proper health and housing supports to meet their complex needs, our most vulnerable community members are at risk.

Our residents are frustrated, and our business owners are suffering from the impacts. Economic recovery from the pandemic will be compromised without action now. It’s time to try new approaches.

We are calling on the province to work with the Union of B.C. Municipalities and the B.C. Urban Mayors’ Caucus to develop complex-care housing. The minister of housing and the minister of mental health and addictions have both been tasked with complex-care housing by the premier in their mandate letters. We are here to help.

We propose five pilot sites of complex-care housing be established in communities across the province; we would like these sites up and running within a year. These small, specialized locations would each be home to 30 to 50 people. At the same time, we recommend that the provincial government, in partnership with communities across B.C., embark on a provincewide strategy for people with complex needs.

The five-site pilot project is a necessary first step in filling a gap in the current continuum of housing and health care to meet the needs of vulnerable people who require mental health and substance use supports and services unique to their needs.

These are the people who are regularly evicted to the streets from supportive housing or released to the streets from prison or hospital. Some may need extra supports on a pathway to recovery. Some may need this kind of care longer term. This pilot project provides an opportunity to learn on a small-scale and then — building on these learnings — to create additional sites in communities across the province.

We look forward to working with the provincial government on this complex-care housing pilot project and would like funding for it to be included in the 2021 budget. We know that despite everyone’s best efforts, hard work and significant investment, the situation is getting worse not better.

We also know, because we’ve learned in our response to COVID-19, that it’s possible to pivot quickly and work in effective new ways.

It’s in the best interests of all British Columbians — from our most vulnerable residents, to their families, to our businesses ­struggling to recover — that we act fast, that we act together, and that we act now.

Brian Frenkel is president of the Union of B.C. Municipalities. Kelowna Mayor Colin Basran and Victoria Mayor Lisa Helps are co‑ chairs of the B.C. Urban Mayors’ Caucus.

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