Skip to main content

British Columbia Robertson calls for study of violence among mentally ill

Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson announces changes to the food scrap recycling program in Vancouver, on Thursday April 11, 2013.

DARRYL DYCK/The Globe and Mail

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.

Story continues below advertisement

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.

Story continues below advertisement

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.

Story continues below advertisement

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.

Report an error Editorial code of conduct
Due to technical reasons, we have temporarily removed commenting from our articles. We hope to have this fixed soon. Thank you for your patience. If you are looking to give feedback on our new site, please send it along to feedback@globeandmail.com. If you want to write a letter to the editor, please forward to letters@globeandmail.com.

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff.

We aim to create a safe and valuable space for discussion and debate. That means:

  • Treat others as you wish to be treated
  • Criticize ideas, not people
  • Stay on topic
  • Avoid the use of toxic and offensive language
  • Flag bad behaviour

Comments that violate our community guidelines will be removed.

Read our community guidelines here

Discussion loading ...

Cannabis pro newsletter