Deputy Premier Rich Coleman (left) has carried the housing file through a variety of ministries over more than 10 years. He's pushing 'low barrier' housing now.

BC VIEWS: Alternatives to drug ghettos

Rich Coleman expands supports for street drug addicts where they gather, instead of offering them a way out

My recent columns on B.C.’s struggle with the growing westward migration of transients have produced responses that fall mainly into two groups.

The largest is people relieved that somebody is questioning the urban media narrative. That’s the one where drifters, drug addicts, welfare shoppers and thieves are the victims, and working people whose hard-earned communities are being degraded are the problem because of their selfish, uncaring attitudes.

Then there are readers so marinated in our nanny-state education, media and political system they object to anything other than a big-government response. They tend to ask, what’s your solution, Tom?

As someone who has lost one relative to heroin addiction and almost lost another, I reflect on the history of successful addiction treatment. That is one of detox and abstinence.

That’s why I oppose the failed model of Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, where resources are poured into concentrated housing and “harm reduction” that perpetuate addiction, handouts and helplessness. Housing Minister Rich Coleman is rolling this out in other communities, in what I fear is an effort to paper over the problem for an election year.

The Globe and Mail recently profiled a methamphetamine addict enrolled at Onsite, the belated treatment addition to Vancouver’s Insite supervised injection site. It was his fifth try, which may have something to do with the fact that when he walks outside he is in the middle of Canada’s biggest street drug bazaar.

Contrast that with a facility called Baldy Hughes, a therapeutic community 30 km outside Prince George. It’s a working farm, designed to provide a year-long program of abstinence-based therapy and meaningful work.

It uses the traditional 12-step program developed by Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous, with peer support and group therapy.

There’s a greenhouse for winter farming, livestock to tend and the residents have designed and built a new horse stable. There’s also a beekeeping project. Residents can complete their high school education, take first aid training and learn basic computer skills.

What they can’t do is leave unescorted during their treatment program. They can’t bring drugs, alcohol, weapons or phones with them.

It’s a costly program, with a small number of spaces available on referral from B.C.’s social development ministry. Others can finance it with the help of medical employment insurance.

I mention this not to suggest it is a solution for every community, but to compare it with what the B.C. government is spending millions on.

A news event was arranged to greet the first resident moving from Victoria’s squalid downtown tent camp to a refurbished nursing home. And who was the poster child for this project, hand-picked by the agency that runs the growing network of shelters in the area?

He described himself as a former Edmonton resident who was hitch-hiking around, going from shelter to shelter and ending up camped in the squat. He was impressed by the tidy room with three meals a day he was being given, in a “low barrier” facility where booze and drugs are brought in, no questions asked.

What he was really looking forward to, in addition to accommodations, was an opportunity to kick back and play his favourite video game. That would be Grand Theft Auto, where your character runs around stealing cars, escaping police and meeting with criminal gangs. It’s popular with adolescents, which these days means anyone under 30.

This is where your tax dollars are going. Waves of people come in, with key trouble spots being communities on the major highways coming into the Lower Mainland.

Tom Fletcher is B.C. legislature reporter and columnist for Black Press. Email: Twitter: @tomfletcherbc


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