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Comment: Victoria needs to address its serious problems

There a shortage of mental health and service providers
A former Saanich councillor says we need a better strategy to deal with homelessness in Victoria. A tent sits on Harris Green. ADRIAN LAM, TIMES COLONIST

A commentary by a former Saanich councillor, who was in office from 2008 to 2014.

In 2023 Condé Nast, the influential travel magazine, named Victoria as the winner of their readers’ choice award as the best city of its size in the world.

It referenced beautiful scenery, a robust hospitality and tourist experience.

However, if it had checked on the city’s underbelly it would have shown a disturbing scenario: the horror show on Pandora Avenue and other tent cities in other communities, the boarded-up shopfronts from vandalism and the frightening assaults on innocent victims downtown.

Add to that the open drug use and obvious mental instability among some in the downtown core and we have an unpleasant experience for many residents, shoppers and visitors.

In Europe, the Netherlands, Hungary and Denmark have made it illegal to live and sleep homeless in the community. In Finland, as part of their commitment to their Housing First approach, the government converted homeless shelters into housing units to create new housing stock with supportive services and is a global leader in combating homelessness.

In 2008, I sat on the board of the Greater Victoria Coalition to End Homelessness, which brought together housing, health and social service providers, non-profit organizations and all levels of government and the business community. The main aim was to provide housing and mental health providers to the homeless.

Unfortunately, the province has since gone in another direction and bought hotels and apartments to house the homeless, which has proven not to be successful in solving the homelessness problem and created dangerous ghettos in some instances.

Riverview Hospital in Coquitlam was downsized in the 1990s and closed in 2012 with a peak patient population of 4,700 residents discharged into the community, which helped to establish a homeless population in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. To this day, there is insufficient housing, social supports or adequate facilities that are needed to integrate patients back into society.

We are in danger of going down the same path in Victoria. We have expected our police force to deal not only with criminal offenders, but to engage and handle those with obvious drug issues, mental-health issues or both.

Not only is there a shortage of mental health and service providers, but there is a serious issue of “catch and release” where criminal offenders are held for a day or so, then released back into the community. Some of these offenders have been charged with hundreds of offences and are still walking the streets with impunity.

Surely, local municipal and provincial governments, the police and the legal profession can formulate policy to plug this gap that allows recidivists to take advantage of this situation.

Victoria is our capital city and there is a need to address and solve these major issues and stop the decay in the downtown before it is too late.

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