Mar. 11, 2018

Charter of Rights at the root of homelessness and drug abuse

Our society is loaded with do-gooders – in the complimentary sense – and that’s what may destroy us in the end.

Following social media you quickly find there is great concern among our fellow citizens about the awful homelessness and opioid crisis. Everyone wants to help, whether they have good ideas or are totally outside the realm of possibility.

What matters is that they care, no matter how noble but hopeless their cause.

In the meantime politicians, in their desire to fix the problem, have their hands tied in what they are able to do. There have been countless efforts to provide housing, to set up safe injection sites, but none of those will solve the problem. Those are simply Band Aids over a gushing wound.

Among the social media suggestions are ones that call for compelling the victims to take treatment, to put them into facilities where they can get help – a roof over their heads, a warm, dry bed, meals and medical treatment they need.

That could go a long way to help many of the people who are the victims of homelessness and drug addiction, many due to mental illness, either as the cause or as the result.

Past governments in British Columbia shut down this type of facilities, as they put it, “to integrate them into society.” There no partisan political blame, it was started by one party and instituted by another when government changed. It appeared to save a lot of money.

Much of that integration eventually wound up on the streets, and that in large part is the root of today’s problems.

Granted, the present government has committed to reopening at least part of the Riverview facility in Coquitlam. That’s somewhere along the way, it’s no instant solution and if we’re lucky will take care of part of the problem.

That gets me back to the root problem with some of the suggestions from the public – wanting to compel people into treatment for mental health and drug abuse issues. It all goes back to the Charter of Rights, a set of rules we cherish as a society.

It raises the issue of where rights start and end for the people we are trying to help. Countless people on social media have pointed out that we can’t order people out of public areas, police and social services are helpless, and it’s due to exactly those rights that are spelled out in the Charter. It is clearcut, we cannot compel anyone to go into treatment if the victim is unwilling. The courts can only sentence people to prison terms, but prisons are not equipped to handle their needs.

The question we have to ask is when should an individual’s rights be curtailed for his or her own good? The mentally ill and drug abusers don’t necessarily have the capacity to make rational decisions. At what level does society decide this question and amend the Charter of Rights to make allowance “for your own good.”

Homeless shelters and injection sites are not solving the problem, they are making things worse. We need solutions rather than temporary fixes which don’t work. I am not advocating for any particular solutiion, but raising a question all of us should be addressing.

Merv Unger is a retired journalist and former Nanaimo city councillor, with responsibility for a Nanaimo housing strategy which created about 150 units for vulnerable people.