Fire at Morberg House a wake-up call amid growing crystal meth crisis, workers say

Front-line workers are urging the province to take action in response to Manitoba's growing crystal meth crisis after a fire at transitional housing unit has left one client homeless and suicidal in the throes of addiction.

'Something has to change,' says executive director of transitional housing unit

Inside the scorched top-floor suite of Morberg House. A support worker there says the man who started the fire is now homeless and has indicated he is feeling suicidal. (CBC News)

Front-line workers are urging the province to take action in response to Manitoba's growing crystal meth crisis after a fire started by a resident at a transitional housing unit has left the man, already suffering in the throes of addiction, homeless and suicidal.

Around 12:30 a.m. Sunday, a man living at Winnipeg's Morberg House — apparently high on methamphetamine — barricaded himself in a top-floor suite and set fire to the unit.

"He set fire to the mattress. We found cigarettes that were lit all over the place. That was his way to create more of a fire," said Chris Mitton, a support worker at Morberg House. "I was really blown away."

Within minutes, two other men living in the Provencher Street home — which provides shelter for homeless men dealing with drug or alcohol addiction — broke into the suite with extinguishers to douse the flames.

"The gentleman who set the fire was out on the roof. That's where they ended up finding him," Mitton said. 

He said fire crews and police arrived but the man, believed to be in a drug-induced psychosis, wasn't taken away, arrested or charged with arson.

"We have someone that created a fire, caused an arson, is a risk to society — they are going to let him go," Mitton said. "It's incredibly frustrating."

Police remained on the scene for hours investigating the fire and while it has been deemed suspicious, a spokesperson said officers didn't have reasonable grounds to make an arrest. 

"They couldn't get any info out of him. He was just talking in circles. You could tell he was in a state of psychosis," said Mitton.

Winnipeg police Const. Rob Carver said police do everything they can not to arrest an individual in medical distress and instead arrange for medical attention.

"Our first and foremost priority is always people's well-being and safety and if we can put that first, we will," Carver said.

Arrangements were made by Morberg House staff to take the man to hospital. 

"When he was assessed by the psychiatrist he openly admitted to using meth," Mitton said, adding the hospital did not admit him at that point.

"Personally I don't think they wanted to deal with him. I was in the room with him. The second he admitted to using meth [the doctor] walked out the door."

A spokesperson for the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority said many people recover from a drug-induced psychosis with 24 hours. However, some have prolonged episodes that last weeks or months.

"If the patient has a prolonged episode of psychosis, the ER physician will consult psychiatry on call," the spokesperson said.

"In cases where the psychiatrist determines that the psychosis is severe and the person is at risk for being in danger to self and others, the individual can be held under The Mental Health Act."

Nowhere to turn

Mitton said during the appointment, the man was found to be in possession of the tranquilizer Xanax. At that point, police were called to the hospital because possessing or using drugs would be a breach of court conditions the man is under.

However, when they arrived no arrest was made, Mitton said. The support worker who relieved Mitton was asked to bring the man back to Morberg House.

However, the transitional home has barred him from living there for the safety of other tenants.

The man is now back on the street and Morberg House staff have received texts from him that suggest he is suicidal.

Calls for drug stabilization unit

Morberg House executive director Marion Willis said she can't believe the man came into contact with police twice, as well as the health care system, and didn't receive help. 

"That's the mantra everywhere you go in the city. Nobody will deal with the drug psychosis. Nobody," Willis said. "It's beyond belief."

Willis sees the violent effects of methamphetamine daily. She says the majority of the roughly 100 clients she works with are addicted. The drug can make people paranoid, irrational and aggressive.

She said Manitoba needs a drug stabilization unit, where patients who are in immediate need during a drug-related crisis can go.

"Something has to change here," she said.

CBC News reached out to Manitoba Health Minister Kelvin Goertzen Tuesday for comment and is waiting on a response.

A government spokesperson previously told CBC News the province continues to invest in addictions resources — including a $985,000 budget increase to the Addictions Foundation of Manitoba — and work is underway to develop a mental health and addictions strategy.

However, when it comes to methamphetamine and opioids, the addiction is so powerful that traditional 12-step treatment models aren't typically successful, Willis said.

Government ignoring meth crisis: opposition

On Tuesday, the Manitoba Liberals added their voice to calls for the province to intervene.

"Manitoba Liberals are calling for immediate action by the Pallister government, and the health minister in particular, to deal with what is a genuine crisis in methamphetamine addiction that is killing Manitobans, putting people on the front line at risk, and tearing apart families who are pushed to the breaking point trying to find help for their loved ones," a media release from the party on Tuesday said.

The party pointed to the recent death of Windy Sinclair, a pregnant mother of four who recently froze to death after she left a hospital where she was seeking treatment for methamphetamine addiction. 

"She was one of many Manitobans struggling with a brutal addiction to a drug that is toxic, cheap, and leads to psychosis in its users, which makes them a danger to themselves and others," the Liberals' release said. "What is needed is a safe place for them to go. But virtually no such places exist."

The party is calling for a three-pronged approach to deal with the problem: the creation of a drug stabilization unit, the creation of more transitional housing with mental health supports, and adequate support to enable those seeking treatment to get care in a timely fashion. 

"The Pallister government is doing virtually nothing to deal with a problem that is very serious and needs attention now."

Front-line workers are urging the province to take action in response to Manitoba's growing crystal meth crisis after a fire at transitional housing unit has left one client, already suffering in the throes of addiction, homeless and suicidal. 2:21