Mayor Gregor Robertson is ramping up his public campaign to tackle an "epidemic" level of sickness and violence among the city's mentally ill and addicted.
He announced Tuesday that Vancouver will create a task force similar to the Four Pillars Coalition that was put together by former mayor Philip Owen in the 1990s to find solutions for drug-addiction issues. Mr. Robertson also will travel to Ottawa next week to spread his message about the way mental illness and addictions are hampering efforts to combat homelessness.
"We need a conversation at a local, provincial and national level," said Mr. Robertson, whose name has been tossed around in political conversations recently as a possible candidate for Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau's federal team.
He'll be the keynote speaker Tuesday in Ottawa at a national conference organized by the non-profit Canadian Alliance to End Homelessness. The mayor also will be pushing for meetings with federal Conservative ministers to search for solutions.
Mr. Robertson began his foray into the mental health and addictions crisis in mid-September at a news conference with Vancouver Police Chief Jim Chu. The two talked about the skyrocketing rate of emergency-room admissions and police apprehensions of the mentally ill.
The new task force will focus on strategies to deal with what Mr. Robertson said is a crisis equal to the 1990s HIV-infection and addiction epidemic. Today, mentally ill people concentrated in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside find their problems compounded by the increasingly devastating mix of illegal drugs they are using.
Research indicates that about half the people living in the city's residential hotels have mental-health problems, two-thirds had injected heroin or other opiates, and four in five had used cocaine or methamphetamines.
"We need to have urgent action here," said Mr. Robertson, who had promised when he was first elected five years ago to end street homelessness by 2015.
In spite of many efforts, his administration has been able to do little more than hold the line on the numbers.
The task force will bring together all the city and provincial agencies involved, as a way of pushing them to come up with new strategies.
City manager Penny Ballem, a former B.C. deputy health minister, said having the city act as an enabler for the conversation and putting people in the same room is a powerful way to create solutions.
Mr. Robertson said he believes that the city's struggle to reduce homelessness is being hobbled because so many people in shelters, on the streets, or in residential hotels are mentally ill, addicted to drugs of some kind, or both. This makes it difficult to place them in stable housing.
"We're having a tougher and tougher time helping people off the street," said Mr. Robertson.
He said he started noticing a change in police statistics during 2012, that showed police were apprehending more people under a section of mental-health laws that allows them to force people to get psychiatric care.
Mr. Robertson also said there have been more cases where "we're now seeing extreme violence," as mentally ill people who are untreated attack complete strangers.
Researchers who came to the city council meeting where the task force was announced said their evidence is showing that there has been a dramatic increase in serious mental-health problems in the Downtown Eastside.
Largely, it's because illegal drugs are getting cheaper and more plentiful.
"Right now, it's $10 a point for meth. It's so addictive," said Bill MacEwan, a doctor who works with residents of Downtown Eastside hotels.
He says their condition has gotten steadily worse, because of the drug problem, and even when a hotel or housing complex has staff available to help with health problems, they are too messed up to access that help.
"You need to intervene, you need to be targeting them," said Mr. McEwan, who is relieved the mayor is focusing attention on the issue.