At a recent Squamish council meeting, a member of the community spoke out regarding the proposed Riverstones development across the street from his property. He was under the impression that it was a homeless shelter rather than affordable rental housing for the community (a mistake that can be forgiven considering the amount of information available at the time). But one thing he said stuck a chord with me - "I'm not sure Squamish has a homeless problem as much as we have a problem with addiction and mental health issues."
It's a point worth considering as communities around the province - and especially Vancouver - struggle to get a grasp on a growing homeless population.
As the 2010 Games approach and downtown is redeveloped, it's likely that Vancouver's homeless issue is getting worse instead of better. It's also certain that visitors and media from around the world are going to notice all the homeless and panhandlers on the street and pass judgment, to the city's everlasting embarrassment. Throwing fuel on the fire, homeless advocates are already planning mass protests with the goal of making Vancouver and B.C. appear heartless, something that international media will dutifully report.
There's a certain desperation in the air. At the Federation of Canadian Municipalities annual conference in Whistler, Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson called on the federal government to immediately release stimulus spending to allow the city to go ahead with social housing projects: "The world will come and there is no doubt that people will ask questions about the state of our city," he said, "and we need a story about how we are addressing these problems."
When I read that a little voice at the back of my mind went back to that Squamish Council meeting, and the larger question of whether the real problem is the lack of affordable beds or substance abuse issues, as well as mental illnesses that may or may not be related to drugs and alcohol. After all, no sober, sane person would really choose to live in the streets... would they?
The answer to that question is probably, sadly, yes, but one has to wonder how many of our homeless are truly victims of circumstance - kids running away from dangerous homes, women leaving abusive husbands, people with serious mental health issues not fitting in, low income individuals and families losing their jobs and their ability to pay rent or mortgages - and how much of the misery is self-inflicted?
That sets the tone for the current debate in Vancouver, sparked by a column by Ethan Barron in The Province and comments made by former health minister George Abbott: whether the public and the addicts themselves might be better-served in the long-run by locking addicts away until they are clean.