Vancouver’s Mayor, Gregor Robertson, was the keynote speaker at the National Conference on Ending Homelessness in Ottawa last month. Robertson brought to the national scene the experience of the Vancouver City Council: Mayor’s Roundtable on Mental Health and Addiction, a coalition of 140 community leaders to target the homeless with severe mental health and addiction issues. See their report, released October 22nd, and discussed by André Picard in the Globe and Mail.
For all its natural beauty, Vancouver has a continuing problem with the homeless, some of whom are hard-core street people with untreated mental illness and chronic additions. In the wake of an increase in violent attacks, emergency room visits, and Mental Health Act nonconsensual hospitalizations, Vancouver police report that they now spend 25 percent of their time dealing with severely mentally ill street people. Where psychiatric facilities are closed, local community services underfunded or cut back, and a “law and order” justice system no more than a revolving door, more homeless is inevitable. Vancouver is not alone. According to the Mental Health Commission of Canada, an estimated 300,000 Canadians live in the 1,096 shelters and on the streets across the country each year. They cost $1.4 billion in additional health care, justice and social services costs, annually. Vancouver has decided to do something about it. And homelessness is the key.
Reading Picard’s account of the Vancouver initiative, I recall similar attention and similar strategies in Toronto not so long ago. Homelessness was a big issue in Toronto. Apart from the Toronto Community Foundation Vital Signs Report, I haven’t heard much about it in recent years. Does that mean the problem has been solved? Or only that it has been drowned out by other issues and by other styles of municipal governance?
How Robertson went about dealing with the homelessness issue is what I want to focus on. He identified a big problem, gathered together all the affected agencies and institutions, researched the current situation, learned from the experts, and developed a comprehensive strategy to address it. He recognized the extent to which it is a national problem and is now seeking a national strategy, and federal funds, to deal with what has now seen as a “public-health crisis.” His is a model for the development of intelligent and effective public policy.
Compare the current Toronto scene where transit has been identified as the key public policy issue of the day. Globe and Mail municipal reporter, Marcus Gee, has produced a video on the history of how transit policy has been made (or not) in Toronto in recent years. It is hilarious and, alas, totally true. Maybe as a public service, the Globe and Mail should post the video on YouTube. It would go viral. You can click on the hyperlink and see if you agree.