British Columbia

Surrey fire chief calls for staggered distribution of welfare cheques

Surrey’s fire chief is adding his voice to the growing list of people who are calling for changes to the way social assistance cheques are issued in B.C.

Len Garis says a policy change could lead to a decrease in overdoses, property crime

Surrey Fire Chief Len Garis says changing the timing of income assistance payments could lead to a decrease in overdoses and property crime. (Rafferty Baker/CBC)

Surrey's fire chief is adding his voice to the growing list of people who are calling for changes to the way social assistance cheques are issued in B.C.

Len Garis — who recently co-authored a report that explores the link between opiate drug overdoses, crime and income assistance in Surrey — wants to see the province stagger the days cheques are given out.

"There is definitely a correlation," Garis said. "On the day social assistance cheques are issued in the city of Surrey, crime drops by 15 per cent and overdoses increase by 37 per cent."

Garis says his research supports a commonly held belief that many people with addictions use their income assistance cheques to buy drugs.

When the money runs out, they turn to minor offences, such as shoplifting, to support their habit.

"We need to change the system," he said. "It's simply not working."

There is roughly a 60 per cent increase in overdoses in B.C. during the five-day period after "Welfare Wednesday" near the end of each month, according to the B.C. Coroners Service.

The B.C. Centre on Substance Use is examining the issue and is expected to report back to the province in the coming months.

Surrey Fire Service Chief Len Garis demonstrates new computer software designed to alert first responders to overdose clusters. (CBC News)

Recovery homes

Garis says there are 68 recovery homes in Surrey — 55 that are regulated and an additional 13 that are unlicensed.

About 70 per cent of the 5,100 overdoses that occurred in Surrey between 2016 and 2018 happened within 500 metres of a recovery home, according to the study.

"We also discovered that there was probably another 90 locations that may or may not have been recovery houses in the past that now are characterizing themselves as boarding houses," he said.

"That whole aspect in the city is something that needs to be addressed and regulated."

Susan Sanderson, who runs the Realistic Success Recovery Society, says the study shouldn't just look at recovery homes.

She says the location of income assistance offices, shelters, medical facilities and other social support programs should be considered, too.

"At our facility, we don't allow any of our residents to attend social assistance offices the week of cheque day because the drug dealers hang out in the parking lots with their products," she said.

She says recovery homes often operate in areas that are affordable and close to social services which are likely places where drug users also live.

Back on Track Recovery founder Cole Izsak says in the three years that he's operated near Surrey Memorial Hospital, there has never been a fatal overdose.

"We have had overdoses here — I think five or six — but there has never been a death," he said. "We've been here for three and a half years without being a nuisance to the community."

Cole Izsak runs Back on Track Recovery in Surrey. (Jesse Johnston/CBC)

Solutions

Garis will present his findings to politicians, policy advisors and other stakeholders in early June at an opioid summit.

He hopes that his research will spark discussions about social policy and new approaches to the overdose crisis.

Iszak also supports staggering cheque days, but he says municipal, provincial and federal governments need to come up with a plan to provide more recovery beds.

"I have a great demand that I cannot meet," he said. "I could probably not ever meet it, even if I doubled my number of beds."

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