Recovery centre challenges Richmond's fears

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      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.



      Mat Loup

      Apr 29, 2008 at 2:49pm

      In a recent Georgia Straight article, relating to a specific group taking action in the community of (Richmond). A proposed addiction / facility scheduled for development by the Turning Point Society faced intense opposition from this particular group to this drug rehabilitation facility being developed in Richmond.

      Community opposition against this development brought about increased numbers of angry residents. The growing protests were the result of misinformation from this specific group. A number of media stories reported that many in the area were very fearful, expressed great concern on how this facility would impact their community.

      Similar to community actions that took place in the Richmond area, the residents of the Dunbar area also voiced strong opposition against a proposed apartment/ assisted living facility site to be built on a site in the Dunbar and 16th Ave. area. The development / site would house the non-profit group’ the Coast Mental Health Foundation’s (Supportive Housing) tenants /clients /which will also include a resource / recovery centre/.

      According to news reports several groups in the Dunbar community were responsible for voicing similar scare tactics being reported in the media, that this supportive housing /faculty complex might be responsible for: 1) Decreasing community property values— 2) Posing a threat to their children – 3) Increased crime rates; but in fact according to news reports there were no police or criminal experts speaking to this issue or any proof was presented to any possible ”˜alleged’ link to increased criminal activity were ever present at any of these Richmond meetings to back this claim up. According to news items on this community meeting, similar concerns were not proven in the Dunbar community either.

      These groups in both communities, tended to foster a discriminatory rhetoric type of attitude based on biased misinformation. Our mainstream stereotypical media through manipulation and distorted facts depicts a very negative view of persons living with addictions, mental illness, those living with HIV/AIDS etc. The mainstream media often deliberately depicts people especially the homeless/ persons with addictions currently living in the DTES to be perceived as bad people).

      Persons who have had life-long problems with mental illness make far more positive progress through a stable housing environment, then without any support at all. With a well-organized support network in place, this makes the transition to recovery much more effective.

      The experts all agree “that stabilized supportive/transition type of community housing can provide a well organized network of community support can make the transition to recovery that much more effective.”

      Much of the information in the piece echoes the research information based on actual interviews with persons, who have relayed these personal experiences of survival. The experts seemed to be in agreement for the most part that these types of community faculties do save lives.

      To reiterate a stabilized housing environment is the key component for success--experts agree that it really does work and can mean the difference between life and death. Without a stabilized, well funded network of community medical /advocacy type support, this can be literally a death sentence for people living with Addictions, HIV/ AIDS, Mental illness et cetera. These faculties offset the health risks involved, reducing pressures on our already strained public healthcare system; in fact they are a positive form of socially economic healthcare.

      I firmly believe that it’s the responsibility of the public officials e.g. Vancouver Coastal Health Authority--- not the burden of organizations, such as the Turning Point Foundation in Richmond or the Coast Mental Health Supportive Housing being developed (in the Dunbar area and elsewhere in Vancouver) to provide the necessary accurate information and lay it out clearly to assure people who are currently in recovery, regardless of their specialized needs.

      People living in these communities also need “to be assured that these types of residential recovery facilities projects will not be to the detriment of the community.” Vancouver Coastal Health Authority in their Supportive Housing Framework states, “that comprehensive community engagement is vital to move forward with the maximum understanding—support and involvement from those parties, who feel they will be impacted”. I completely agree with this statement.

      However more focus should be made to educate the public. There must be a lot more focus on how the mainstream media continues to write reports that are stigmatizing and stir up prejudice. This kind of misinformation does so much damage—creating and stirring up problems that create social barriers. In my opinion this is not productive, in the long run it works to be counter-productive.

      This sets the stage for making addiction treatment centers, recovery community homes, treatment facilities ”˜a lightening rod for people’s fears’.

      This article also goes on to state; “that the B.C. Provincial government has introduced a new health Bill 23, currently in its 2nd /3rd reading (A Public Health Bill that “may require cities and towns to set aside space for services for people with addictions or mental disabilities to ensure that people with specialized needs, get the help they need and do not have to leave town to get help.” How will this affect future housing development facilities / recovery projects in our communities?

      I believe that there might a downside to this perceived Government’ political interference, because when people in a community are forced to accept a recovery / residential project. This reinforces the attitude of “not in any back-yard mentality” therefore increasing fears and resentment---aiding the spread of bias & misinformation. I believe it is far more productive and more positive to have the respect of the community at large. Support without the force, is the positive way to go. It makes for healthier communities.

      Questions / concerns My other concern is that, these types of facilities seem to be geared for males, not females. Women often seem to be neglected in having their needs met to any degree. That needs to change.

      What about the addition of more residential assisted living / recovery centres faculties in the future for seniors both women & men?

      With respect to our ageing population is increasing rapidly / (since women generally live longer and are often more isolated than men). Communities really need to see—have access to valuable up-to-date accurate information. This should be paramount, therefore deflating the negative influence of groups like the ”˜Caring Citizens of Richmond’ from taking hold in the first place. Using negative scare tactics in the community of Richmond, every one loses in the long run--resulting in doing great injustice.

      Community attitudes need to change, as groups like this one when they take hold, do so much damage, based on outmoded fears and hypercritical misinformation. If we fail to address these concerns as they emerge, we cannot expect to influence the perceptions of these people carrying out these many complaints. In closing, I believe that we all benefit as healthy communities make for strong communities.

      Marilyn Young, Vancouver


      Apr 30, 2008 at 5:09pm

      I wonder just how many of these "caring" citizens will rue the day they opposed a center that could provide such a valuable community service. Just how many of their children have to become addicts before people realize it can happen to anyone; and by neglecting to have proper treatment services for those who want help we are increasing the risk for more people to become addicted. This protest reeks of fear based discrimination. Do we have to remind people that there was once also a time when mentally and physically disabled people weren't welcome in communities? If we're going to take giant leaps back, consider how many wonderful members of the community could be carted off to isolated institutions. Perhaps there are some who would say that they cannot see the parallel, to them I say human beings are human beings and as long we continue to see addicts as "undesirables" we are further stripping our communities of the humanity they are supposed to be about.


      May 30, 2008 at 3:51pm

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      Sep 12, 2010 at 6:20am

      This protest reeks of fear based discrimination. Do we have to remind people that there was once also a time when mentally and physically disabled people weren't welcome in communities? If we're going to take giant leaps back, consider how many wonderful members of the community could be carted off to isolated institutions. Perhaps there are some who would say that they cannot see the parallel, to them I say human beings are human beings and as long we continue to see addicts as "undesirables" we are further stripping our communities of the humanity they are supposed to be about.
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