Opposiition leader Rich Coleman speaks to Union of B.C. Municipalities convention in Vancouver Sept. 28, 2017. (UBCM)

Coleman calls for courage on mental illness

Local politicians must risk defeat for supportive housing

Opposition leader Rich Coleman used his first and likely only speech at the Union of B.C. Municipalities convention to urge local governments to face “the eye of the storm” and move ahead with more supportive housing for people with mental illness and addictions.

Speaking to the convention in Vancouver Thursday, Coleman related the story of former Nanaimo mayor Gary Korpan, who was in office when Coleman first took over the provincial housing file in 2004 and began a 15-year push to expand services.

Korpan told his council to “step up” and identify five sites to house mentally addicted people, Coleman said, facing the hundreds of angry people who descend on every public hearing for those kinds of services in communities across the province.

Those five sites are built today,” Coleman said. “Gary lost the next election, because he stood up for what he thought was important.”

Over the next dozen years, Coleman would carry on a push to expand supportive housing through every ministry he held, from forests to public safety to natural gas development. His program included building shelters and buying up hotels and motels from Vancouver’s downtown east side to the B.C. northwest, to convert to facilities for the hardest-to-house people in society.

By the end of his term in government, B.C. is spending $2.8 billion a year across ministries to support mental health and addiction treatment.

“It doesn’t matter if it’s supportive housing or treatment for mental health and addictions, whether it’s therapeutic communities, whether it’s a 28-day program, we need to come to grips as a society to make sure those services continue for people and can be improved upon as we go forward,” Coleman said, receiving warm applause from UBCM delegates.

Coleman described visiting the Baldy Hughes therapeutic community near Prince George, and speaking with a 21-year-old aboriginal youth who had been there to recover in a drug and alcohol-free environment. He had started sniffing glue at age 12.

“He told me when I sat and talked with him that for the first time in his life, after a year, he could actually use the word love,” Coleman said. “He said, ‘I didn’t know I could actually like myself’.”

Coleman told delegates they need to consider extreme measures for extreme cases.

“Some of those solutions may be therapeutic,” he said. “Some may be almost like state care for people who just can’t get there, whose mental health and the issues that they’ve had in life are so huge for them that they don’t have the ability to get there.”