People experiencing homelessness need mental-health supports: Manak

People with severe mental illness need more than a roof over their heads — they need wraparound services and care, Victoria Police Chief Del Manak said Thursday.

“We have to recognize that leaving people who are chronically ill, underserved, in need of medication and mental-health supports on the streets to fend for themselves is no humane way to deal with anyone.”

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Manak made the comments in the wake of two deaths in two days in Beacon Hill Park. On Wednesday, a woman’s body was found near Dallas Road on the south side of the park. The next day, a man died when his van caught fire in the parking lot by the petting zoo.

“It’s tragic,” said Manak. “Our officers are in the parks on a regular basis. They’re on a first-name basis with many of the campers because they’re there seven days a week accompanying bylaw officers. You get to know the individuals. … It’s hard on our officers as they’re responding and going to deal with these types of situations.”

Manak noted that along with the pandemic, many people are experiencing homelessness.

Many have barriers to housing. The city and B.C. Housing are doing the best job they can and, despite limited resources, police are trying to keep people safe, he said.

The health authority, B.C. Housing and service providers are trying to find new solutions, beds and support systems, but that can’t come quickly enough, he said.

“We’re just trying to keep people healthy, making sure fire-safety hazards are looked after, making sure people are complying with bylaw [officers] and making sure that the criminals who are preying on our vulnerable in our parks and in supportive housing are dealt with accordingly,” he said.

Criminals embed themselves in encampments and in supportive housing on a regular basis, posing as people experiencing homelessness, said Manak. Their sole purpose is to exploit the vulnerable and marginalized.

“Our officers are doing everything in their power to stop the victimization of individuals in and around the encampments and the supportive-housing units. So we are coming at those individuals hard,” he said.

Although there are more supportive-housing units than ever in the city, more marginalized people have moved into the community, said the chief, resulting in criminality, victimization and lack of social order.

“We are seeing incidents playing out on our public streets that are quite concerning for members of our public. It’s playing out in their parking lots, bus stops, in front of their buildings,” said Manak.

On Tuesday, a woman who works at the Pizza Hut on Yates Street was punched repeatedly after asking two men who were arguing outside the restaurant to leave the area. On Monday, a man was arrested after pouring gasoline on an occupied tent in Cecelia Ravine Park and threatening to set it on fire with a blow torch.

Bylaw officers have also been threatened. One bylaw officer’s vehicle was smashed with a sledgehammer.

With two deaths in two days, the public is understandably concerned about safety in parks, said Manak. “I think people need to be cautious. I believe the parks are safe, but I know many people in our city don’t believe they are and I’m not going to talk them out of that.”

Officers are in the parks and on the streets 24/7, said Manak.

“Our work is cut out for us. We’re doing the lion’s share of the heavy lifting … We’re doing everything that we can to keep people safe and we’re committed to that and our officers will do that day in and day out.”

ldickson@timescolonist.com

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