There was a sign on the door, and it read: “Our children are not safe”. Some 800 people came through that door at Howard DeBeck elementary school in Richmond last December 1. Many of them were parents with children. As they all filed in, women handed out little stickers of a pink house in a circle with a line drawn through it like a nonsmoking sign.
The rally was set up by the Caring Citizens of Richmond, a group that came together last May in opposition of Turning Point Recovery Society’s proposed three-building, 32-bed residential recovery facility on Ash Street.
“We support this project, but we ask them to maybe have it somewhere else,” Caring Citizens member Vivian Hui said.
Seven speakers presented a variety of claims that such a facility would decrease property value in the neighbourhood, increase crime rates, and pose a danger to children. There were no police officers or addictions specialists at the meeting to verify any of their claims.
“These people have used all the wrong tactics to terrify people,” Turning Point executive director Brenda Plant told the Straight at that meeting. “They’re already condemning us, but they don’t really know what we do. All they know is that we provide services for drug addicts and people in recovery.
“Our clients are not court-ordered; they’re not criminals. They just have problems, just like everyone in this room has a problem,” she said.
“The so-called Caring Citizens of Richmond will tell you that it’s just numbers and it’s density,” said
Michael Goehring, former president of Turning Point. “But everything else they say, in terms of their materials and their rhetoric, indicates there’s a discriminatory attitude towards people with addiction and substance-abuse issues.”
Turning Point claims to have offered residential recovery for addicts seeking treatment for 25 years in Vancouver and Richmond with no complaints or increased criminal activity. Vancouver police spokesperson Jana McGuiness, however, said tracking crime growth specifically in areas with treatment facilities would be too difficult to assess because “crime is everywhere”.
A bill introduced in the B.C. legislature on April 9 and presently in first reading might help Turning Point to establish its facility. Bill 23, to be known as the Public Health Act, may require cities and towns to set aside space for services for people with addictions or mental disabilities. Although the bill doesn’t specifically mention the Turning Point proposal, it imposes a requirement on municipalities to ensure that people with addictions don’t have to leave town to get help.
The nine beds at the society’s Odlin Road facility in Richmond—which also serves as its offices—are for men only, leaving nothing for women and no supportive-housing units for recovering addicts once they complete the program. Plant says many of these people end up seeking treatment in the Downtown Eastside or they fall back into their old addiction-supporting environments.
This is what makes the Ash Street proposal so unique: clients will have both levels of care on the same piece of land.
Richmond city staff is currently reviewing Turning Point’s Ash Street application for rezoning, which would allow for 20 support recovery beds (10 for men and 10 for women seeking recovery from substance abuse), one caretaker suite, and 11 self-contained affordable housing units. Plant says these beds are for clients who have already completed the program but need extra assistance with independent living and integrating back into society.
If the application is rejected, the province’s new legislation could open the door for the society to file a judicial-review application and obtain a court order forcing Richmond to reconsider such a decision.
Caring Citizens of Richmond chair Ernie Mendoza was the last one to speak at the December public meeting. He represents the people who oppose Turning Point’s proposal. Each one of his statements was greeted with noisy cheers and applause. He’s been the most assertive and aggressive in his approach to fight the project, claiming that because Turning Point has never run a 32-bed facility, they’re setting the community up for calamity. He believes that such a facility will subvert the nature of the largely family-oriented neighbourhood.
“A large institution like this does not fit in the community,” he says. “It is not compatible of the nature of the community.”
Richmond’s 2001 Group Home Task Force—which was formed after Turning Point opened its Odlin Road facility—recommended that a group home should house no more than seven to 10 beds and must be located on a thoroughfare. (The same task force also suggested that a “negative impact on home values is unlikely”.) In Mendoza’s opinion, the residents will oppose anything the size of the Ash Street proposal, even if it were a 32-bed convent.
“It is not logical that, for example, if you were to take [an] area, and right in the middle of that area, you build a zoo. It doesn’t work. It is not logical. It is not useful. It does not fit into the area,” he says.
But Vancouver Coastal Health’s 2006 “Mental Health and Addictions Supportive Housing Framework”, states that supportive housing should be spread throughout the city’s neighbourhoods to “support individuals to stay in their own communities and to avoid any over concentration in particular areas”.
Dr. Christian Rucker, an addictions specialist based at Vancouver General Hospital who works with Turning Point patients once a week, says spreading treatment facilities around residential neighbourhoods can provide addicts a chance to escape the cycle of addiction in downtrodden areas like the Downtown Eastside and Whalley in Surrey.
“The most important part of managing addiction is a social treatment of taking these people out of isolation and giving them a new life and reintegrating them meaningfully in society,” Rucker says. “I see the recovery movement as incredibly important in that.”
“Turning Point works because we’re in community,” Plant says. “Addiction is a disease of shame and isolation, and our job here is to reintegrate these people back into community. It’s not to further shame them by putting them out on a farm somewhere. They are members of the community and they have every right to be in their home community and to get the services that they need and want.”
Residential treatment, with its rigid structure and ongoing support, acts like a community within a community. Instead of a lifestyle revolving around addiction, facilities like Turning Point offer a lifestyle that revolves around people in recovery. It’s a dose of sobriety for many of the patients who come in mentally and spiritually exhausted and desperate for change. The facilities won’t allow a client who might put the staff at risk. In a way, the staff acts as watchdogs for the neighbourhood; if the staff is safe, then so are the neighbours.
Turning Point’s model of treatment is just one type of treatment in a continuum of services for people with substance-abuse problems. Vancouver city council is currently studying supportive housing for people with addictions and mental-health issues, with a focus on stabilizing their lives and reconnecting them with the community. Vancouver’s drug policy coordinator, Don McPherson, says all 650 of Vancouver Coastal Health’s proposed supportive-housing units will be spread throughout the city in every neighbourhood within the next 10 years.
Many of the arguments that Mendoza and the Caring Citizens of Richmond are voicing are commonly heard, according to UBC psychology professor Richard Mathias. The perception that they present is more a manifestation of prejudice than of risk, due in part to the stereotype of Downtown Eastside drug addicts as “bad people”.
“This is a classic case of risk communication maybe not being carried out as well as it might on either side,” Mathias says.
He believes it’s the responsibility of the experts to provide the public with the necessary information and lay it out clearly to assure people that residential recovery projects won’t be to the detriment of the community. This is not being done as effectively as it could be, he says, even though research indicates that treatment facilities have very little negative impact on the surrounding community.
“If we gave them a much better feel of how treatment and management of drug addiction actually works in these kinds of settings, maybe they would become more familiar with it. With familiarity comes less of this irrational-type prejudice that seems to be occurring,” he says.
“If we don’t address those things, then we can’t expect to influence the perceptions of the people who are carrying out the many complaints.”
Vancouver Coastal Health’s supportive-housing framework states that comprehensive community engagement and education is vital for the city to “move forward with the maximum understanding, support and involvement from those parties who may feel they will be impacted”.
But Mathias believes the responsibility of education shouldn’t be laid solely on the shoulders of organizations like Turning Point. Such societies typically don’t have the risk-management skills necessary to deal with the usual backlash of a subverted status quo. The information needs to be provided for the public by public officials—respected members of the community such as the police, the municipality, and the health authority—who believe that such controversial projects are beneficial to the greater good.
Instead, the “system” has let Turning Point take the lead on the project and has unwittingly instilled a fear within the community.
“It’s easy to rile up a crowd and get, you know, 500 people to come out by publishing a leaflet that says all these horrible things are going to happen to you and your neighbourhood if this facility gets built,” Vancouver’s McPherson says.
“There should be more focus on how stigmatizing these kinds of health problems is not productive and is, in fact, counterproductive to them and communities being healthy communities,” he says.
He believes that media depictions of illegal drugs, especially heroin and cocaine, have been largely responsible for making treatment facilities a “lightning rod for people’s fears”.
Twelve thousand people have, allegedly, signed a petition against Turning Point based on such notions. Michael Goehring says that the Caring Citizens of Richmond and its faceless cyber affiliate, NIABY (Not In Anyone’s Backyard), have used what he calls “guerilla tactics” to ensure that many of those people signed without knowing the true facts of what Turning Point is all about.
And so, on December 1, Mendoza thrust his microphone into the air as he finished his speech. The crowd whistled and booed. He stood there smiling. Sweating. Beaming. The crowd erupted into a thunderous chant of “No! No! No! No!” with percussive clapping and streamed out of the auditorium. The message was clear: Turning Point is not welcome.