Cowichan Valley pleads for drug-crisis aid

A Cowichan Valley group made up of everyone from local politicians to the RCMP and Island Health has come together to request provincial help to address what it calls the region’s addiction and homelessness crisis.

The Cowichan Leadership Group has been working on a comprehensive plan to address the issues for more than a year.

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In that time, the crisis has only escalated, said Cowichan Valley school board chairwoman Candace Spilsbury. “The concern, anger, frustration and feelings of hopelessness by community members have escalated at the same pace,” she said.

In a letter sent to 10 provincial ministries, the group says overdoses are on the rise, they’re concerned for the safety of residents and front-line workers, and the local RCMP is overwhelmed.

Duncan Mayor Michelle Staples said the issue affects everyone in the community, from vulnerable residents sleeping and using drugs on the streets to businesses dealing with petty theft and residents feeling unsafe.

The region has a team of people who go out in the morning to wake people who are sleeping in front of businesses and ask them to move.

“But where do they go?” Staples said.

“If people are using [drugs] on the street and the bylaw officer says: ‘You can’t do that here,’ where is that person going to go? They don’t have a home. They don’t have a place to go.”

At the same time, business owners should be able to open their doors in the morning without having to move people, she said.

Staples said she has helped to respond to an overdose near her own office, adding it’s not an uncommon experience.

The group is asking for $14 million over five years to create four temporary residential treatment centres and provide a safe-drug supply, among other measures.

“The RCMP is inundated with calls for service and is overburdened with the investigative requirements of a judicial system that isn’t able to adequately contain drug offenders,” the group wrote in its request for funding.

The leadership group is made up of the mayors of Duncan, North Cowichan and Lake Cowichan, Cowichan Tribes Chief William Seymour, Cowichan Valley Regional District chair Aaron Stone, MLA Sonia Furstenau, MP Alistair MacGregor, school board chair Spilsbury, Dr. Shannon Waters of Island Health and RCMP Insp. Chris Bear.

Although the overdose-prevention site has helped to decrease the number of overdose deaths, the group says the small community is struggling to provide the harm-reduction services needed. The local prevention site recorded 170 overdoses in the fiscal year 2018-2019, and averaged more than 600 weekly visits over the past three months.

“We are a smaller centre dealing with numbers of people seeking services for harm reduction and addiction that no one expected,” the group said in its letter.

Its strategy focuses on removing the fentanyl-tainted illicit drug supply and creating a recovery environment, with the hope of addressing addiction and crime in the community.

In October, Minister of Mental Health and Addictions Judy Darcy visited the region and heard the group’s proposal for funding, but the ministry rejected the request. Darcy said in an interview that the government recognizes there is a crisis in the Cowichan Valley and across the province, and is working to provide resources that will alleviate the problems.

“We’re not always able to say yes to every project proposal that comes to us, but we are committed to working with the community to meet the needs that have been identified,” Darcy said.

She said her ministry will have an update soon on additional supports in the Cowichan Valley related to increased access to treatment options, but couldn’t specify what or when it would be.

“I can’t say to you if it’s weeks or months, but it will be coming soon. It’s not very far off,” Darcy said.

The province has invested money in a number of initiatives in the region, including increasing the availability of affordable counselling for trauma and substance-use and expanding same-day walk-in mental-health and addictions counselling in Duncan, Darcy said.

Staples said she understands the government is putting money into prevention measures, but the community needs help now. “Prevention is something that will help for the future. We need help right now for what’s happening,” she said.

regan-elliott@timescolonist.com

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