Manitoba can, and should, do better for those fighting addiction

Ending homelessness and addiction will take more than new buildings, says Robert Lidstone, a recovering addict. He says it's time to invest at least as much in our human services — those that offer care, support and guidance — as we do in the physical infrastructure that protects us.

We need to invest as much in human services for addicts as physical infrastructure, says Robert Lidstone

It's not news that Winnipeg is losing its war on drugs, says Robert Lidstone, who has battled addiction. He says it's time to invest at least as much in services that offer care, support and guidance as we do in the physical infrastructure that protects us. (Bert Savard/Radio-Canada)

It's not news that we are losing the war on drugs.

I write as someone who has lived and almost died on the front lines of this so-called war. My on-and-off addiction to crystal meth lasted for over a decade, taking me from a PhD program in Toronto to living on the streets of my hometown of Winnipeg.

Save for my relationships with caring friends and family, I lost just about everything in my battle against addiction. Many of these wonderful people returned to my life very soon after I finally declared surrender and went to detox for the last time this past summer.

We were all scarred by the experience, but are on a path of healing together.

Sadly, not everyone makes it out alive. My friend and former housemate Wes Elwick passed away of a drug overdose in the room next to mine at the Main Street Project (MSP) during the night of Oct. 31, 2016. As his mom Kelly later told the CBC, "It just didn't need to happen."

Wes, who was only 25 years old when he died from using fentanyl, was a handsome, friendly, hardworking young man. I recall one of our last face-to-face conversations in the men's detox at MSP, and how determined he was to return to a normal life. He told me he just wanted to get a job and a place to live, and not be stuck in yet another treatment program. Both of us had been in treatment centres before, only to suffer devastating relapses into substance abuse.

Wesley Elwick was 25 at the time of his death. He had been struggling with his addictions for years, but was seeking treatment. Robert Lidstone remembers his friend as a handsome, friendly, hardworking young man who 'wanted to get a job and a place to live, and not be stuck in yet another treatment program.' (Holly Caruk/CBC)

After he died while under the care of the agency, the Main Street Project announced the creation of "Wesley's Rule," a protocol designed to ensure greater frequency of room checks.

I could see how hard his death was for the staff there — they took it to heart. The problem was not that the staff lacked knowledge, sensitivity, or compassion. It's that MSP and the health-care system in general are not provided with adequate resources to provide the services that addicts most need, when they need it most.

Currently, the men's detox at MSP consists of a 10-day stay in a poorly lit, crowded space with a single television, phone and bathroom shared among up to 28 men. Some outside 12-step groups visit the space to hold meetings for clients, who are not allowed to leave during their stay unless there is a medical emergency. Visitors are not permitted, with some exceptions. 

I stayed in this place several times, and while I am grateful that decent food and shelter were provided, I believe that we can and should do better in terms of the services we offer. Addiction is a mental illness, and should be treated as such by the health-care system.

This stairwell at the University of Winnipeg is where Robert Lidstone, 37, slept several nights while in the throes of his crystal meth addiction. He says Manitoba needs to do better in terms of the services offered for those fighting addiction. (Jill Coubrough/CBC News)

In Ontario, hospitals operate withdrawal-management centres that admit people who want to get clean and access help 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

In Manitoba, I have heard many stories of addicts leaving emergency rooms or crisis centres in despair because they didn't get the help they needed.

People who decide to stop using drugs in our province have to jump through a series of unnecessary hoops and wait far too long to access a safe, supportive environment. We need to look at creating stabilization programs that can bridge the gap between active substance abuse and rehab or treatment programs, which often have wait times of one to two months before a person can be admitted.

Mobile outreach is also a crucial component of care for people struggling with addiction.

The Main Street Project's patrol van was recently forced to suspend its operation due to a lack of funding. After a woman died from exposure to freezing cold temperatures in December 2016, the Downtown BIZ stepped in to provide $35,000 to get the van back out on the streets.

In comparison, the Winnipeg Police Service spent $343,000 to purchase an armoured response vehicle in 2015. This urban equivalent of a tank is battle-ready. It weighs almost eight metric tonnes and is equipped with eight gun ports.

The Winnipeg Police Service spent $343,000 to purchase an armoured response vehicle in 2015. In contrast, Robert Lidstone says, the Main Street Project struggled to find $35,000 to keep its patrol van out on the streets. (Winnipeg police/Submitted)

However, WPS Chief Danny Smyth recently reported that the ARV has been used more for training and appearances at community events than for tactical deployments since it was purchased.

Both vehicles, the van and the ARV, are designed for mobile crisis response. One offers care, and the other's goal is protection. But who feels cared for, and who feels protected?

University of Manitoba criminology professor Frank Cormier has pointed out that "people tend to feel more afraid when they see an armoured vehicle in the streets of their city, so these things can actually reduce the sense of safety." For many Indigenous folks and people of colour, the police do not represent safety. Instead, they may be perceived as intimidating and untrustworthy.

Police officers and other public servants regularly work with people struggling with addiction, mental illness, and homelessness. But they themselves are not immune to the temptations of alcohol and drugs.

Sadly, an off-duty officer has been accused of driving while intoxicated and allegedly struck and killed a young man at the intersection of Main and Sutherland on Oct. 10th, 2017. Like my friend Wes, Cody Severight was a young man with lots of potential whose life ended much too soon.

We are faced with an addiction and mental-health crisis in Manitoba that is affecting all of us, not just "addicts on the street." Our system tends to thinks of people as belonging to either one class or another: service providers or clients, haves or have-nots. The social reality is much more complex.

We all experience brokenness at times, and we all have a need for healing.

Let us come together and decide to invest at least as much in our human services — those that offer care, support and guidance — as we do in the physical infrastructure that protects us.

This column is part of CBC's Opinion section. For more information about this section, please read this editor's blog and our FAQ.


Robert Lidstone is a lived experience member of the St. Boniface Street Links Board of Directors.