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Rob Shaw: BC NDP under fire for progress on homelessness despite massive spending

Parties clash on solutions to pervasive homelessness and drug issues ahead of fall provincial election
Strathcona Park homeless camp in Vancouver in 2021. | Mike Howell

Premier David Eby found himself on the defensive this week over his government’s inability to make progress clearing homeless encampments, despite hundreds of millions of dollars spent on the issue.

Federal Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre sideswiped his government with a new attack ad showing public spaces in Vancouver, Abbotsford and Kelowna that have devolved into tent cities, filled with drug use and crime, over the last few years.

The ad, which features before and after photos of identical locations over nine years, is intended to target the federal Liberal government, but Poilievre used the opportunity to drag in the BC NDP and put the boots to Eby in the process.

“It’s everywhere and it’s getting worse every day,” he told me. “B.C. has a double problem in that not only do British Columbians have to live under the economic vandalism of Justin Trudeau but then it’s compounded by the tax-and-spend NDP government, which is making it even worse.”

Eby blamed the pandemic, interest rates, unaffordable housing and population growth for driving homelessness to persist in the province.

“You’re seeing these impacts right across North America,” said Eby. “So what I would love to hear is the proposal for how you’re going to solve these things. How are you going to address them?”

The NDP government has spent hundreds of millions of dollars buying up motels, hotels and SROs over seven years, as well as constructing new shelter spaces, to try and get people off the street. It’s also created new addictions treatment spaces. Yet, there is little visible progress.

Ready to leap on the issue are the BC Conservatives and leader John Rustad.

“It’s absolutely true,” said Rustad. “When you look at the situation in every community around the province, it's no longer just about the east side of downtown Vancouver, it is all over the place. You’re seeing tents, you're seeing continual open drug use, it's been a complete disaster, these policies of decriminalization and safe supply. They need to come to an end.”

The BC Conservatives aren’t affiliated with Poilievre, but they are nonetheless particularly skilled at drafting behind the popularity of the federal leader and using that momentum to advance their own ideas.

In this case, Rustad gave a glimpse into some of the proposals he’ll advance on the issues of street disorder, homelessness and drug use in the upcoming election campaign

“There's a lot that needs to be done on this,” he said Thursday.

“We need to take safe injection sites and turn them into recovery intake sites. We need to build out capacity, everything from doctor-prescribed treatment, to short-term recovery, to long-term recovery, to involuntary recovery, and even to long-term care.

“There's a lot of things that need to be set up and structured with a heavy focus on getting people into recovery, as opposed to just giving them more drugs and perpetuating and growing the problem that we have in British Columbia.”

There’s a lot to unpack there.

B.C. has numerous supervised consumption and overdose prevention sites. Some drug policy experts say there’s not enough and that most do not allow people to smoke drugs, which is currently the most common method of overdosing.

Rustad, however, appears to be taking the opposite stance.

Converting those sites into some sort of recovery intake system would be a fundamental shift in B.C. drug policy. The details, which one assumes the Conservatives will be sketching out in the weeks ahead, will be vital to understanding the scope of the policy pivot.

Rustad also referenced involuntary treatment of people who find themselves on the street, trapped in a cycle of addiction, mental health crises and homelessness.

“I just think that it’s compassionate to be able to do that,” he told the website True North News.

“Yes, you are impacting on their rights, but at the same time in a society we need to be looking at this from a perspective of saying, ‘They’re not capable of being able of making that decision,’ and we need to be able to step up and be able to help them in those circumstances.”

Rustad also proactively mused about using the notwithstanding clause of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms to fend off a court challenge, should he form government.

Involuntary treatment has become a dividing line in the proposals by political parties to address persistent homeless encampments and street drug use.

Eby endorsed the idea during his BC NDP leadership bid in mid-2022, calling it a compassionate response to those who cannot help themselves. But he later backtracked after complaints by Indigenous leaders, civil libertarians and drug policy experts who said the policy could actually backfire, force users to hide and even leave them more susceptible to an overdose coming out of forced recovery.

Eby punted the issue to a new outside expert he hired this month, who won’t have any solutions before the Oct. 19 provincial election.

BC United, meanwhile, has called for “compassionate” involuntary treatment for some, regional recovery communities that allow for stays of up to one year, and a plan written by Simon Fraser University professor and psychologist Julian Somers to address street homelessness. The party even costed out its proposal at $1.5 billion over three years.

The public then has three pretty clear choices heading into this fall when it comes to homelessness and drug policy: The crackdown proposal of the Conservatives, the moderate reforms of United or the status quo policies of BC New Democrats.

The choice will be a fascinating one.

Rob Shaw has spent more than 16 years covering B.C. politics, now reporting for CHEK News and writing for Glacier Media. He is the co-author of the national bestselling book A Matter of Confidence, host of the weekly podcast Political Capital, and a regular guest on CBC Radio.

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