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Comment: A well-intentioned experiment gone bad

Unfortunately, society has lost sight of the basic principle that you can’t have rights without responsibilities.
The Provincial Mental Hospital in Coquitlam was known to its neighbouring suburbanites as Essondale. GREG SALTER VIA WIKIPEDIA

A commentary by a retired lawyer who served three years on the B.C. Council of Human Rights and was a founding director of the Haro Park senior-care centre in Vancouver.

For many years I’ve stood on the sidelines and watched our various levels of government struggle with the plight of the people in our society who are not capable of looking after themselves, i.e. socially disabled.

This includes not just people with mental and physical disabilities but also those who are not capable of negotiating the bureaucratic complexity of programs designed to help them.

I have followed the various attempts at solutions and believe we can do better. Sadly, the addiction and opioid crisis is getting worse in spite of more money being spent.

In the early 1980s, civil liberties, human rights and other groups lobbied the provincial government to close down “mental institutions” (which included physically disabled people) and integrate the residents into regular society by setting up group homes and other support systems.

They argued that those residents would fare better and the government would save money (the eternal carrot). Institutions such as Glendale and Riverview (formerly Essondale) looked after people with a very wide range of disabilities, some so severe that they needed careful medication to prevent them from harming themselves or others.

Others needed very specialized care to function “normally” on a daily basis. In spite of isolated incidents of abuse by care workers, overall the residents were cared for and safe.

The institutions were closed and group homes set up throughout the province, staffed by independent contractors. The residents who were not severely disabled appeared to function rather well, and they were free to come and go as they pleased.

However, there was no mechanism to force them to take their “meds.”

Many residents found the downtown scene “fun” and were persuaded to get into illicit drugs and alcohol by predatory criminals.

Some who decided not to take their meds became very violent, and others became vulnerable to rape, prostitution and petty theft.

Yet others were persuaded to hand over their government cheques to the predators. If these vulnerable people wouldn’t agree to abide by their group home rules, they were left without a home and ended up on the streets.

Many caregivers in group homes have been physically assaulted by residents “off their meds” or high on illicit drugs.

Hospital staff are also assaulted, and emergency wards have become a revolving door for the unfortunates who overdose, are treated and then released back into their destructive environment.

Even when they are arrested under the Mental Health Act, there is no mechanism to force them to undergo treatment and they go back to the streets.

“Tent cities” spring up in public spaces, especially in cities where the climate is milder. Destruction of property increases, health hazards abound, clean-up costs escalate when “tent cities” are dismantled, and public officials scramble to pay top dollar for housing because citizens are fed up with the “homeless problem.”

Our bylaw enforcement officers and police forces are straining under demands for their assistance, whether to keep our streets safe, or the vulnerable people safe, or just simply to enforce law and order.

Seeing the same criminals released on bail time after time, spending countless hours waiting for patients to be admitted under the Mental Health Act, having to pick up the slack for bylaw enforcement, being constantly under scrutiny for “racializing” or other discriminatory behaviour – it’s amazing they haven’t collapsed under the load.

Unfortunately, society has lost sight of the basic principle that you can’t have rights without responsibilities.

For the socially disabled members of our society who are not capable of looking after themselves (for whatever reason) to be left to fend for themselves, whether on the streets or in a “free” housing complex with the usual criminal element moving in, is cruel.

When our seniors become less capable of looking after themselves, they have resources to help them. When the family or community resources are insufficient, or they become difficult to manage in a “normal home setting,” we place them in institutions where they are fed, bathed and cared for by properly trained staff.

If they suffer from dementia and have habits of wandering off, the doors are locked.

In spite of the bad publicity some long-term-care homes have received during the pandemic, most homes provide very good care and have many programs for the seniors to participate in. They also have a social life without having to worry about criminals hurting them.

Some care-home residents actually see improvement in their overall health in these settings.

I believe we would serve our disabled people far better in such a controlled environment, similar to what we provide for our seniors.

Even in our prisons there are many activities and opportunities for learning and growth. I believe it would also be more efficient, because there would be enough residents to take part in various programs.

It is far more costly to work with individuals one-on-one than to have a class for, as an example, basic nutrition and hygiene.

Of course there will always be some staff who are either not properly trained or have behaviour problems, but it is up to strict, intelligent and compassionate management to deal with that.

That is certainly not avoided by shutting down institutions. And when residents show that they are able to look after themselves (basic hygiene, meal preparation and money management), they can be (re-)introduced to society with financial aid which is already in place.

To just provide housing without any safeguards or proper care will not solve the problem.

However, implementing the type of safe and secure housing I propose (no alcohol or illicit drugs, with trained staff as appropriate, including dealing with violent behaviour) will need some changes to various laws, such as no automatic government cheques issued to people who have no fixed address.

Vouchers for rent, food, clothing etc. in a variety of stores have been used successfully before and reduce abuse. Drug possession (including small amounts for trafficking to pay for the habit) should be decriminalized and recovery medication such as methadone should be available for residents.

These are just a few examples.

Evidence-based treatment through diversion programs should be available as well. Hopefully existing facilities such as Our Place can work with the provincial government to plan safe and secure homes for those who truly need it.

Hopefully in this way we can truly help our disabled folks to have a better chance at living a healthy, happy life.