British Columbia

'Compassion fatigue': mayors tell B.C. they need help managing homeless populations in their towns

The B.C. government announced an extra $3.5 million in funds to fight the overdose crisis, with an emphasis on new programs in small to mid-sized communities across B.C. 

The province was highlighting its approach to the overdose crisis, but some local leaders were critical

Mental Health and Addictions Minister Judy Darcy makes an announcement during the UBCM in Vancouver, British Columbia on Monday, Sept. 23, 2019. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

Hours after the B.C. government announced more money for municipalities to fight the overdose crisis, a number of local leaders criticized the province for not paying more attention to the "compassion fatigue" cities and town were experiencing around issues of homelessness and mental health. 

"We, like many communities, are drowning," said Nanaimo Mayor and former NDP MLA Leonard Krog.

He was one of many mayors who took to the microphone at the Union of B.C. Municipalities convention following a forum where Mental Health and Addictions Minister Judy Darcy presented the province's efforts in lowering overdose deaths

"We need help in the worst way, and the meantime, the reservoir of public sympathy is fast evaporating because of the level of crime related to addiction."

Similar sentiments were expressed by several mayors, including Vernon's Victor Cumming, who took particular issue with a needle distribution program by Interior Health.

"It's really eroding the compassion from the community, and the city is caught paying for it," he said.

"You're asking for partnership. We didn't get a partnership. We got this laid on us ... it's critical for us to pick up needles, but it's a huge task, and we're bearing the brunt of this." 

A man pushes a cart at Canada Place during the first day of the UBCM in Vancouver, British Columbia on Monday, Sept. 23, 2019. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

More money for overdoses

The passionate question and answer period came on the same day the province announced up to $3.5 million in funding to help communities find local solutions to the overdose crisis.

"It's not people in Victoria that will know best what will work in your communities. It's people in your communities," said Darcy.

New grant funding will be provided for programs like needle distribution and recovery programs, along with projects to reduce stigma or connect people to health-care services.

In addition, 35 communities will receive up to $150,000 for new "community action teams," including smaller, more remote communities like Hope, Grand Forks, Nelson and Castlegar, Williams Lake, Quesnel, Dawson Creek, and Terrace.

"We are going to continue to escalate our response until we turn the tide," said Darcy, nearly four years into the province's public health emergency

"We need to use every tool in our toolbox, and we need to keep adding."

Stewart urges support for government

But while Darcy's message didn't seem to land with some in the room, Vancouver Mayor Kennedy Stewart said he hoped mayors from smaller communities would support the province's efforts. 

"I can't imagine how overwhelming it is to have the increasing levels of homelessness and overdoses in small towns," said Stewart, who spoke at the presentation about Vancouver's campaign for a safe drug supply.

"And compassion fatigue. I guess there's no point. You get over that after awhile, because you realize the alternative view is putting people in jail, and, in the end, that's not going to help anybody," he said.

Krog expressed cautious optimism the government was responding to concerns around how much municipalities could shoulder the load in tackling issues around homelessness, mental health and drug overdoses.

"I would like to think they're starting to get it," he said. 

"The problem is right there: it isn't the city's jurisdiction, it isn't the city's responsibility, and the city does not have the resources." 


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