'We don't have the resources:' City to call on province for mental health, overdose support

By Dominic Abassi
January 9, 2018 - 5:56pm Updated: January 10, 2018 - 12:47pm

The sign gracing a pop-up overdose prevention tent in Nanaimo for international overdose awareness day in August.Spencer Sterritt/NanaimoNewsNOW

NANAIMO — Don't forget about us.

That's the message the City of Nanaimo hopes to convey, as the provincial government begins to roll out potential solutions to the overdose crisis gripping the harbour city and many other communities in B.C.

The City's Public Safety Committee recommended Council send a letter to the Ministry of Mental Health and Addictions calling for support to create an emergency response team based out of Nanaimo to deal with addictions, mental health and violence.

"(It's about) having Nanaimo have a voice and not being left out of the conversations," Karen Fry, the City's fire chief and acting director of public safety, told NanaimoNewsNOW. "We wanted to make sure we get the support we need. It is a mental health and addictions issue and we don't have the resources in our city to adequately address it from a local government perspective."

Fry said the province plans to create regional response teams to be led by health authorities. The hope is Nanaimo will not be overlooked in favour of more populous areas.

"Our concern is the (Island Health) coverage area is quite large and Nanaimo needs responses and assistance just as much, if not more, than places like Victoria."

A City report showed there were 400 overdose calls in Nanaimo in 2017, up slightly compared to 2016 and a sharp increase from 2015, when there was less than 100. Data from the BC Coroner showed 43 overdose deaths in Nanaimo through the end of October last year.

As a local government, Nanaimo has struggled to affect change in what many residents and business owners feel is a quickly-worsening scene of open drug use, rampant homelessness and aggressive behaviour from people with mental health issues, particularly in the downtown core.

Council has taken steps and spent money on the issue, but has been lambasted by delegates at meetings and people online over a perceived lack of action.

However, issues of mental health and addictions are not burdens to be carried by municipalities, said Kevan Shaw, downtown property owner and president of the Victoria Crescent Association.

"This is a health issue, so where is the province?" Shaw said. "What is the health authority doing? This is not just a City problem or a downtown problem anymore. Where is the NDP government?"

Shaw said the issue could not be closer to home for Nanaimo MLA Leonard Krog, whose community office is located on Victoria Cres.

"No one can explain to me why we are seeing such a dramatic increase here in Nanaimo," Krog said, of the number of homeless people with mental health and addictions challenges.

He said the problems are "being worked on" by the NDP government.

"We're not going to be able to build the housing overnight...I wish I could offer a quick solution but we are in the midst of a crisis which is exacerbated by the level of addiction and the availability of fentanyl," Krog said.

He referenced several NDP initiatives underway, while blaming the Liberals for the inherited issue of a lack of affordable housing. He pointed to February's throne speech and budget as potential turning points.

"I think people will start to see a tangible change in the government's reaction to this. In the meantime, we simply don't have it."

In an emailed statement in response to questions about specific steps being taken to address the issue in Nanaimo, the Ministry of Mental Health and Addictions said "the Overdose Emergency Response Centre, regional response teams and community action teams will work to take urgent local action to intervene quickly with life-saving measures on the ground."

When asked similar questions, Island Health pointed to their Community Outreach Team, a new subtance use team, a 12-bed medical detox program and the still active Assertive Community Treatment team.

"Contact with clients can be up to several times a day if needed, again with the focus being recovery and rehab," Island Health said of the ACT team.

Council is expected to discuss the issue and deliberate on sending the letter at their Jan. 15 meeting.


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