ROTHENBURGER: There’s a proven alternative to warehousing the homeless

Maybe it happens in some cases but logic suggests there’s more to it than that. And there’s evidence that putting the addicted and the mentally ill together in large apartment buildings makes it harder, not easier, to get well.

A study I’ll refer to below found that 80 per cent of those experiencing homelessness, mental illness and addiction in Vancouver’s Downtown East Side have moved there from elsewhere.

But first, a friend alerted me this week to the writing of Michael Shellenberger, the author of San Fransicko: Why Progressives Ruin Cities. I’ll reserve judgment on some of his opinions on other matters, especially on things like climate change and nuclear energy, but he has some interesting things to say about homelessness.

He has his detractors — he’s been described by one advocate for the homeless as being “like an Internet troll that’s written a book.”

One of Shellenberger’s fundamental messages, based on interviews with hundreds of homeless in San Francisco, is that there isn’t a straight line from poverty to homelessness and addictions. It’s addiction that causes poverty and homelessness, not the other way around.

And he connects homelessness and crime via the theory of “victimology” in which society is reluctant to impose rules and consequences on the downtrodden. This fits with our own concerns about prolific offenders.

It reminds me of comments by Rick Eldridge, the security officer I’ve written about a couple of times. He believes most of the street people on Victoria Street West are engaged in criminal activity to support their habit, and is critical of what he considers inadequate response from the police and courts.

Packing the homeless into dedicated facilities exposes them all to each other’s issues. Which brings up the case of Dr. Julian Somers, a clinical psychologist and Simon Fraser University professor. Earlier this week, a National Post column told of his claim that the B.C. government is, in effect, censoring him for promoting the view that the province’s approach to homelessness is ineffective.

It’s actually an old story in that Somers has been making his point in the media for a couple of years. It involves the issue of a large database created over several years of the experiences of street-entrenched people, and a government order that the database be destroyed.

A key ingredient of his findings is that what is called ‘congregate housing’ should be replaced with a concept called ‘recovery oriented’ housing.

According to this model, congregate housing works for low income and seniors but not for those with addictions and mental illnesses because it places them in an environment of erratic behaviour and drug use.

The difference between congregate housing and recovery oriented housing is straight forward. Congregate housing would be what we see all around Kamloops — downtown, on the North Shore, in Valleyview and on Columbia Street West, where the homeless are warehoused in second-hand motels, construction trailers and a few purpose-built facilities.

Recovery oriented housing would see about five per cent of units in market housing occupied by those needing supportive housing. It’s a matter of putting them in scattered settings instead of single buildings. The reasoning is that social reintegration is key to recovery.

It’s more than a theory. Pilot projects, according to those who support the concept, have proven that it costs no more than congregate housing, reduces crime by 70 per cent, reduces medical emergencies by 50 per cent and is more effective at getting people back on their feet.

The statistics showed that 84 per cent of homeless people experiencing mental illness and addiction preferred independent housing to the alternative.

Somers, in a Vancouver Sun column two years ago, pointed out that a vaunted national strategy in Portugal emphasizes that overcoming addiction requires ending social exclusion. “Strictly speaking, there is no such thing as treatment without social reintegration.”

A Call for Action white paper presented by the SFU Centre for Applied Research in Mental Health and Addiction to the B.C. government in July 2021 called for a new program that would take referrals from four regions of the province using the recovery oriented approach. But the commitment to building single-purpose homelessness towers remains.

There’s clearly a divide between the Somers-SFU methodology and the NGOs and government agencies that run our housing programs but it seems to me they agree on one thing, and it’s that supportive housing in any form requires access to therapy and the oft-quoted and elusive “wrap-around services” to work.

That’s certainly clear in the Call for Action paper: “To be maximally effective, recovery oriented housing must be integrated with other services including sources of referral.”

So why can’t all parties — including the housing Establishment — take a serious look at the housing model itself? The solution to the problem is likely a combination of approaches but the solution is, indeed, out there if we’re willing to talk about it rather than censor it.

Mel Rothenburger is a former mayor of Kamloops, former TNRD director and a retired newspaper editor. He is a regular contributor to CFJC Today, publishes the opinion website, and is a recipient of the Jack Webster Foundation Lifetime Achievement Award. He can be reached at [email protected].

Editor’s Note: This opinion piece reflects the views of its author, and does not necessarily represent the views of CFJC Today or Pattison Media.

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