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Tents house the homeless beside City Hall in Victoria, B.C., Thursday, June 4, 2020.

Chad Hipolito/The Globe and Mail

Mayors of B.C.'s largest cities want provincial politicians to come up with new solutions to a growing problem of homelessness, addiction and mental health issues, saying the focus on providing housing alone is too narrow.

At least some, including Nanaimo Mayor Leonard Krog, say it’s time for the provincial government to consider radical steps such as institutional facilities for those who cannot live in a traditional setting.

The mayors of 13 B.C. cities plan to hold a news conference Wednesday to outline their demands for a new approach and to call on the leaders of B.C.'s campaigning political parties to make a commitment to help cities address the crisis. British Columbians go to the polls on Oct. 24.

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The mayors say the NDP’s promises to ramp up the construction of social housing aren’t enough to tackle the problems. Hundreds of people are sleeping outside in major cities, occupying local parks in a growing number of tent encampments that have challenged cities to ensure the safety of both the people living within the camps and nearby residents.

Neighbourhood residents have complained about increased crime and the lack of provincial help for the homeless, a theme Liberal Leader Andrew Wilkinson has been highlighting in recent days as his party seeks to regain power from the NDP.

Some mayors in the just-formed caucus, started at the initiative of Victoria Mayor Lisa Helps, say providing housing by itself doesn’t address the needs of a new generation of drug users who have overdosed on opioids but survived with serious brain injuries.

“We have a significant brain-injured population now that’s never going to function without supports. What the province is doing now is not enough because it doesn’t deal with those cases,” said Mr. Krog, a former long-standing NDP MLA. “If we have places to send people, then there will be progress.”

But he said he’s not talking about recreating 19th-century asylums.

“I’m not asking people to be strapped to their beds, drugged 24/7, and be presided over by Nurse Ratched,” said Mr. Krog, whose city has a homeless population of about 600, one of the highest per-capita in the province. “But people need routine. I’ve talked about smaller, community-based facilities or a therapeutic farm.”

Burnaby Mayor Mike Hurley and Coquitlam Mayor Richard Stewart echoed the sense that homelessness, mental illness and addiction are swamping their cities, with new approaches needed for the very different groups caught up in those issues.

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They say they can’t supplement the health system using their limited property tax dollars. It’s the province that has to provide the comprehensive remedies.

Mr. Hurley said he is concerned by the slow pace of change, which he wants to see addressed during the campaign. There have been lots of announcements about housing money, he said, but few actual buildings opened.

“We’re very frustrated at the slow speed,” said Mr. Hurley, who swept long-time mayor Derek Corrigan out of office in 2018 on a promise to do better on housing. He said Burnaby has pre-emptively rezoned six sites for social housing that could provide homes for 1,300 households, but the provincial money still hasn’t arrived.

Both he and Mr. Stewart in Coquitlam emphasized the need for better mental health services for those among the homeless or at-risk population. Mr. Hurley said they’re often only available during office hours, which is entirely the wrong approach. Mr. Stewart said people with mental health problems often end up with police as their only option during a crisis instead of a health team.

Like the others, he emphasized that just building housing, while useful for some people among the homeless population, is not going to be a complete solution for people with the kinds of challenges cities are now seeing.

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“It’s not going to be solved by building a better cardboard box. We’re starting to see a whole new wave of people needing care because of brain injuries.”

Besides that key issue, the mayors plan to emphasize the need for provincial candidates to talk about how they’re going to keep transit systems healthy until the pandemic is over and what kinds of supports cities will get as their revenue shrivels because of COVID-19 effects, even while some costs have gone up.

We have a weekly Western Canada newsletter written by our B.C. and Alberta bureau chiefs, providing a comprehensive package of the news you need to know about the region and its place in the issues facing Canada. Sign up today.

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