Vancouver mayor promises to fill gap between police, social services if re-elected

Forward Together and OneCity are promising to create specialized teams to respond to certain kinds of calls – instead of police. Monika Gul looks into what these teams would entail and what other parties are promising.

Incumbent Vancouver Mayor Kennedy Stewart is promising to bring an in-house mobile service to “compassionately” assist those in need if re-elected in October.

Stewart’s team, Forward Together, says its planned mobile service, the Health and Addictions Response Team (HART), would allow people to call 311 to dispatch a “specialized team” in times of need, according to a news release.

These teams would provide non-emergency mental health and addiction assistance.

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“People don’t know who to call when they encounter someone sleeping in a park, in front of their store, or in obvious distress. They want to help and usually use 911 to call the police,” Stewart said.

“But being homeless or mentally ill is not a crime, and most of these situations are not emergencies. What is most often needed is de-escalation, immediate food, water and clothing, and connecting those in need with existing provincial services such as emergency housing, health care and income assistance programs. HART fills this gap.”

Stewart says HART would start with 25 staff members with a range of skills. Forward Together adds HART’s main objective is to de-escalate situations and provide help, which means members will not carry weapons. It adds staff will only contact 911 when absolutely necessary.

Speaking on Tuesday, Stewart says while he has loved serving as mayor for the past four years, the worst part of the job is the email he receives every Monday, telling him how many people have died due to the toxic drug supply.

“I really dread opening my inbox on Monday morning, because I see the numbers and they’re staggering. Ten people, five people, eight people, 15 people. All neighbors, all relatives, all people that are loved, passing away,” he said. “And one week when I opened the email, it was a member of my own family. And so this is a crisis that has affected all of our communities. And we’ve got to do something about this.”

Stewart believes if he is re-elected and this program comes to fruition, it will take pressure off Vancouver’s emergency response services.

“Being homeless or mentally ill is not a crime. And most of these situations are not emergencies. What is most often needed is de-escalation, immediate food, water, and clothing and connecting those in need to existing provincial services such as emergency housing, health care, and income assistance programs. HART fills this gap,” Stewart explained.

The party says money from the existing overdose crisis contingency reserve fund, established in 2017, would be used for HART services in the 2023 budget, with $5 million to start.

“Frontline workers in the Downtown Eastside desperately need a number that they can call to bring in mental health experts who can help people in crisis and connect them to available support services,” said Sarah Blyth, executive director of the Overdose Prevention Society, in the release from Forward Together. “We know that people are more likely to call a non-911 crisis line for assistance. Sometimes simply caring for someone in crisis makes all the difference.”

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Canadian Mental Health Association CEO Jonny Morris told CityNews Tuesday that it is reassuring to see parties and candidates running for election taking “the issue of crisis care so serious.”

“During the course of the Vancouver election, a number of options have been put forward, and that’s reassuring, and I think it, in many ways, builds upon the work we’re doing already in the North Shore and elsewhere in the province around trying to reduce the risk upon police when it comes to crisis and community,” Morris said.

Morris’ comments come as OneCity Vancouver, another party up for election in October’s municipal elections, launched its platform Monday, which includes committing to implementing Peer Assisted Care Teams (PACTs) in Vancouver, which are teams of crisis response workers to mental health or substance-use emergencies. These kinds of teams are already in service across the three North Shore municipalities.

While Forward Together and OneCity’s platforms are similar in scope, Morris says the differences can be seen on an operational level, and whether they are dispatched from “in-house or out of house.”

“But I think at the end of the day, there are core principles across the proposals. And I think the key principle is deploying civilian unarmed teams to respond to crisis. … And that’s really encouraging — something we’ve called full for a long time at the Canadian Mental Health Association,” he said.

Morris says one of the unique attributes of PACTs in OneCity’s platform is the role of peers — people with lived and living experiences as part of the response team.

“And what we’ve learned on the North Shore, and we’ll likely see this in Victoria and New West, is that people with lived experience have lots to offer when it comes to responding to someone in distress. There’s an addition of safety, there’s trust, and they can be very, very influential and powerful in de-escalating a difficult situation,” he told CityNews.

Morris says the North Shore PACT team has responded to about 450 contacts since its inception in November 2021, and will soon be launching similar programs in New Westminster and Victoria.

The Vancouver civic election takes place on Oct. 15.

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