Why a criminology prof wants addiction clinics within 500m of major transit hubs
Research in U.S. shows treatment centres near transit stops save costs, improve access
Some cities in Canada are experiencing a surge in acts of violence on public transportation and that's prompted calls to put mental health and addiction treatment facilities within 500 metres of major transportation hubs.
"[Bringing] the services around the transit nodes makes so much sense," said Kelly Sundberg, a professor in criminology at Mount Royal University in Calgary, in an interview with Day 6 host Brent Bambury.
Reports show that acts of violence against passengers on Toronto transit are up 46 per cent compared to 2021 and violent crime calls are up 53 per cent in a year in Edmonton.
Sundberg says it's being seen in many cities across the country.
"Those who are challenged with housing or shelter, addiction, mental health, they've been using these transit nodes, as well as libraries and the other few public spaces that remained open. They use these spaces to stay warm, to stay dry, just to stay safe."
He said that a social friction has developed while people return to pre-COVID-19 lockdown habits like commuting or taking transit for entertainment, like movies and restaurants — and more supports are needed.
Bringing treatment near transit hubs
Sundberg thinks legislation brought by B.C.'s minister of transport Rob Fleming that allows the province to buy land near transit hubs for housing and community services is a good step.
Fleming was unavailable for comment, but B.C.'s Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure did confirm in an email that this could include health services. B.C.'s Ministry of Mental Health and Addictions adds that the province is investing $586 million for treatment and recovery services.
Sundberg says he's been contacted about similar initiatives around housing near transit in Ontario, but he endorses going further and offering comprehensive sites offering social services for vulnerable communities near transit hubs.
He was impressed by a presentation by Calgary-based landscape designer Erica Hansen at the 2021 Alberta Parks and Recreation Conference.
Hansen showed a design concept for a "centralized wellness hub" near Calgary's Sunalta LRT (light rail transit) stop at the site of a former Greyhound bus station.
"Homelessness and addiction seems to be becoming more visible in the city. And why is that? It's because people don't really have anywhere else to go," said Hansen.
"I think that it's vital to have that transit connection, especially with like LRT transit. It's just easier for people to get around … if you want these centres to actually be used."
Hansen says that there would be outdoor public spaces for unhoused people to occupy, access to lockers and hand-washing facilities. This hub would be directly linked to a building offering social services such as mental health and addiction treatment.
Sundberg thinks it's a great idea.
"Having doctors and dentists, social workers, counselors, but other things to give human dignity, having a place so that people could get a haircut, that they can have a shower … use the washroom, get cleaned up because it's just giving a shred of human dignity back to these people."
U.S. research suggests benefits
Jeffrey Cohen, a professor at the University of Connecticut's School of Business, has been researching the benefits of bringing addiction and mental health treatment facilities near public transit routes. His research project ran between 2013 and 2018 is currently a working paper under peer review.
His team looked at a rapid bus transit line connecting four towns in Connecticut, including the state capital of Hartford.
"What we're finding is that there's this significant relationship between being close to these new transit start ups … and costs, operating costs are significantly less," said Cohen.
"The other thing that we're finding is that there's a relationship between equity and access to treatment."
The research looked at addiction and mental-health clinics that were within half-a-mile, or approximately 800 metres, of a new transit route. Cohen considered that basically walking distance, and compared results with those from clinics further afield.
"Having public transit is one way that helps the providers sort of not have to bear the direct costs of getting people to and from treatment, as well as having a reliable stream of patients coming in the door, making sure people are on time for their appointments."
The research found a roughly two per cent cost savings per patient for facilities near transit hubs, which Cohen says is statistically significant, and adds up when you're seeing hundreds of people.
Need for wider, co-ordinated solutions
For Sundberg there's a need for more evidence-based, thought-out solutions as opposed to ad-hoc responses like the City of Toronto adding police officers to TTC routes and then removing them.
Toronto Police Chief Myron Demkiw did say in a statement at the time that officers will continue to be visible on transit and respond to emergencies. The increased police presence since late January resulted in 314 arrests and officers giving more than 220 referrals to people in need of social supports like shelter, food and mental health services.
Toronto has since added some outreach workers from a community organization to transit routes.
Cohen's research brought together an advisory committee in Connecticut including the state's public health, addiction services and transportation department.
He credits departments getting outside their silos for experiments with social workers and police officers at transit stations.
He says the advisory group led to discussions about whether bus routes should be moved to stop near treatment clinics, which has been done in Prince Edward Island.
Sundberg thinks it's time to create a national task force in Canada to look at evidence-based solutions that address the needs of vulnerable people on public transit, but also public spaces altogether.
"We need to take a look at broad, multifaceted solutions ... I think this is of critical importance."
Radio segment produced by Yamri Taddese, with files from The Canadian Press.