Catherine Holt: Therapeutic community is our ray of hope

I attended an event that was filled with hope and celebration late last month on a topic that isn’t often associated with those words. It was the opening of the therapeutic recovery community in View Royal, operated by Our Place Society and funded by the provincial government, as well as many private donors.

It is a game-changer for our region.

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Not everyone on the street has an addiction and not every addict is on the street — but there is a large overlap. And those are the people who will experience the change.

You’d never know by the outcomes, but we have a huge web of services for those experiencing homelessness, mental-health issues and addiction. The Capital Regional District mapped the services last year and the resulting list, and cost to run them, was astonishing. And yet the problem of how to help those on our streets and keep our downtown safe for everyone seems more insoluble than ever.

I hear it all the time. In the same month the new therapeutic recovery community opened, I was on a panel, organized by Our Place during the municipal election, asking local government candidates what they planned to do regarding homelessness (answer: not much). I was also the moderator for a discussion about safe communities at the Vancouver Island Economic Alliance annual conference, where the panel talked much more about the growth of this problem than about solutions. And I have had a wide variety of business owners, worried about the direction this is all going, asking what the Chamber of Commerce can do about it.

The best answer I have is to support the therapeutic recovery community.

Last spring, I watched as a young man died before my eyes on Johnson Street from a fentanyl overdose. He was brought back to life by paramedics who deal with that situation every day. Seeing that changes the way you think about what we can do to keep our community safe.

It has to be safe for that young man, and those who would have been devastated by his loss. It has to be safe for those who are not housed because they can’t afford rent in this outrageous housing market, and it has to be safe for tourists, for families and shoppers, for business owners and employees — or we won’t have a downtown worth visiting or living in.

Right now, people on the streets suffering from mental-health problems and addiction are managed by shuffling them among temporary housing, various encampments, jail, hospital, detox or short-term treatment. At the end of any of those interventions, there is nowhere to go but back on the street.

The only thing that seems to exist, anywhere in the world, that really helps people with these problems is the approach taken by long-term therapeutic recovery communities. The original community is San Patrignano, Italy — now 40 years old and continually expanding.

It offers addicts a place to live where they are supported and held accountable by their peers. They have a safe home, good work and a healthy lifestyle — not just for days or weeks but for years. It is not-for-profit and it does not charge the participant. But its most important claim to fame is its success rate, as described on its website: “The research, also validated by medical retroactive tests, shows that over 70 per cent of the residents of the community that have completed the program have fully reintegrated into society and no longer use any type of drug.”

That is unheard-of with current addiction treatment. Most treatment on the Island is in for-profit centres that charge tens of thousands of dollars to desperate families for a few months of treatment. Most of these centres don’t publish information on their success rates, so we don’t know how good they are.

Portugal is another role model. In an effort to respond to a crisis level of drug addiction, it is engaged in a country-wide transformation involving the long-term therapeutic recovery community model, which is showing good results.

Victoria is an empathetic community. We have dedicated a lot of resources to our street population for a long time.

With the rate of fentanyl overdoses we are experiencing now, the therapeutic recovery community is likely the only thing that has a hope of giving those addicted to drugs a route to a new life and — in the process — making our streets safer for everyone.

So let’s all do what we can to support Our Place Society and make this thing a success — for the future of our city and all of us who live here.

Catherine Holt is the CEO of the Greater Victoria Chamber of Commerce.

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