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Province promises millions to address homelessness, mental health, and addictions

The province has promised big changes to Alberta’s homeless shelters and drug treatment programs, with plans to bring the current government’s recovery-oriented care model closer to those in need.

Dually announced on Oct. 1 were an additional $124 million over two-years for the province’s recovery-oriented care system, with the goal of increasing access to addiction and mental health services in Calgary and Edmonton, alongside $63 million to reduce homelessness.

“The whole vision of Alberta’s government is based on the reality that that recovery is possible,” said Premier Jason Kenney, in Edmonton.

“So we have developed, and today we massively expand, Albert’s unique model in North America of a recovery oriented system of care. The whole point is to give people a fighting chance to escape from the grips of addiction, so they have the opportunity to build a new, safe, fulfilling life.”

At the heart of Saturday’s announcement was that services providing access to health care, detox and rehab efforts, housing, job training, and recovery from homelessness would be made more accessible directly clients at shelters and though commonly accessible points of contact.

The government is planning on developing two new long-term treatment communities in Calgary and Edmonton. This is alongside increasing medical detox capacity in the two cities.

Hybrid health and police-operated facilities in the downtown of both centres are also planned. They’ll assess patients onsite in order to divert individuals from emergency departments and instead into urgent treatment plans and addiction treatment. The final format of these facilities has not yet been finalized by the province.

Funding is also going to be provided to shelters for 24/7 access. That will change the way that homeless Albertans are able to access shelters year round.

“The work will start while we keep them being cared for during night, we’re going to take the time during the day to lift the standard of Homeless Services,” said Jason Luan, Minister of Community and Social Services.

“We going to connect them—whether it’s mental health, it’s addiction, it’s addressing counselling for intergenerational trauma, it’s addressing poverty, it’s helping them find jobs—you name it.”

The province is also looking at expanding homeless outreach teams in the Downtown Core and the Beltline, with what the province is calling enhanced direct outreach to connect individuals with overdose prevention and recovery resources.

“My council colleagues and I are pleased to see a coordinated response to the intersectional crises that Calgarians in positions of vulnerability are facing, which means communities businesses and social service agencies are also better supported,” said Calgary Mayor Jyoti Gondek.

“The hybrid health and police hubs combined with harm reduction and recovery outreach teams will allow us to better dispatch the most appropriate service providers during situations of crisis.”

She said that the city and its partner agencies have been talking about wrap-around supports for decades, and that support has finally arrived.

“I cannot stress how big today’s announcement is, and how important it will be for so many Calgarians that are in need,” the mayor said.

“We have been talking about this for decades, and to finally be taking some steps in the direction of making sure that cares available in one site is huge.”

Budget breakdown sees more money for homelessness to Edmonton, equal dollars for addiction treatment in Calgary

New in next year’s operating budget will be $15 million for the Calgary and Edmonton recovery communities, $3 million for expanded medical detox services, a doubled to $12 million budget for health and police hubs, and $10 million for discharge planning and therapeutic living units at provincial correctional facilities.

The currently budgeted $4 million for harm reduction and outreach teams in Calgary and Edmonton will remain the same for 2023-24.

Capital expenditures for the recovery communities in both cities have been set at $25 million each. Meanwhile $8 million will be used towards expansion of medical detox services to build spaces.

The province will be spending $12 million in additional funding over this year and $12 million next year to address the gap between homeless funding in Edmonton, which is lower than in Calgary.

"I think it's important to recognize that there was a historic inequity in funding between Calgary and Edmonton. And what the government has attempted to do now is to fix that inequity," said Mayor Gondek.

"So the $12 million announcement that we heard for Edmonton that you didn't hear for Calgary is because we've already got that funding in place."

The mayor said she remains vigilant in ensuring that allocated dollars will continue to Calgary, despite a change in provincial leadership in days, and a new provincial election within a year.

"All we can do as a local government is continue to deliver the message that this is what our city needs, and right now we've got a situation where municipalities are all united in delivering that message together with [Edmonton] Mayor Sohi and other mayors in this province."

"I will continue to state repeatedly, regardless of who the government is, that we need to do more of this type of work."

Critical care being provided to homeless Calgarians

Mayor Gondek called Saturday's announcement of 24/7 shelter access a critical piece to providing care to homeless Calgarians.

"It is incredibly significant for people who find themselves unhoused to know that they can be in shelter throughout the day,” she said.

"We had makeshift solutions in the past and I'm really happy to see that there's been commitment to 24/7 care."

In December 2021, council approved $750,000 to address shelter access during the brutal cold snap that brought temperatures well below -20 Celsius for an extended period of time.

"With the winter season and minus-25, minus-30 temperatures, I don't want to face that again. I want to be sure that everybody has a warm place to go to. That means warming stations, warming centers, in addition to having doors open to the shelters," said Ward 7 Coun. Terry Wong.

Ward 8 Councillor Courtney Walcott said that although the budget for the enhanced outreach in his ward hasn't changed, the way the province is providing funding makes what efforts are occurring more sustainable.

"It took a long time for the some some aspects of the actual provincial funding to make its way down to our city,” he said.

"The time that we were most paying attention to it was also the same time that we didn't have it. So, now that we're starting to see the funding come in, on a year-by-year basis that's not exactly just a one time drop in the bucket, we'll be able to create some sustainability and capacity building within the organizations that are doing this work."

He said that this would lead to more efficient outreach. With the integrated approach proposed by the province for addressing systemic homeless issues, work wouldn't just be placed onto outreach teams.

"It's no longer just our outreach team is doing the work that no one else can do. Instead, it's actually all of us doing the work together."

Questions about harm reduction, safety continue

Coun. Wong said that with the additional funding being provided, there is a need to address other services being provided to homeless programs as well.

"As an example, we've heard people in East Village, in Chinatown, and downtown say there's a clean and safe issue as well,” he said.

"We're talking about being able to ensure that our downtown is the right place for people to be, whether they are visitors or people living or work here, so we need to invest in the clean and safety."

He said that the question of what would become of safe consumption sites was a fundamental one.

"Once the province decided to pull [overdose prevention and supervised consumption] out of the Drop-in Center as an example, that opened the door for all those questions. So, where is there going to be service, or are they going to be supported."

He said that the city needed to ensure that people were not taking drugs in places where they would be affecting the general population, like on LRT lines, Lions Park, Kensington, or in downtown.

"Most importantly though, we need to be sure that the health support services that are there to rapidly respond are there for them. You can't do that if you don't know where they are,” he said.

Still, said Coun. Wong, no answer on whether there would be safe consumption sites in the city.

"I've had conversations with Minister Luan and Minister Ellis in the last couple of weeks or so about that precise question, and I was hoping I heard an answer today,” he said

"I was with Minister Luan twice this week already, and I kept pushing the question and I still don't have an answer. We have other events to go to, common community events to go to, and I'll keep pushing them."

Government claims addiction deaths down 47 per cent from peak

Premier Kenney said that the approach that Alberta will be taking will be in contrast to what he called a reckless approach to harm-reduction in B.C., and a misunderstood one by advocates in Portugal.

"We support a continuum of care that includes discrete harm reduction, but unlike the hopeless view of some, we believe that recovery is possible,” the Premier said.

He pointed to the success of a lawsuit the province joined against pharmaceutical manufacturers of opioid drugs.

"As a result, in the coming days our province will take bold steps to prevent dangerous pharmaceutical drugs from entering our communities in an irresponsible way, and further harming Albertans,” Kenney said.

"Because as you know, in British Columbia, at the request of the provincial government, the federal government has effectively legalized possession and trafficking of hard lethal drugs."

Premier Kenney called the continued use of decriminalized drugs in B.C. as trapping people into addiction, and it was "basically slow motion palliative care.”

"That's not helpful, that's not compassionate,” he said.

Starting in 2023, the Government of Canada will be granting a temporary three-year exemption for B.C. to remove criminal penalties for people possessing small amounts of specific illicit substances including opioids, cocaine, methamphetamine, and MDMA for personal use. The limit under the exemption is 2.5 grams or less.

The federal government, in a statement when that policy was announced, was explicit in stating it was not a legalization of drugs. The exemption doesn’t allow for possession of any limit in or surrounding schools, child care facilities, airports, and does not allow for drugs to be imported, sold, or given away to other users.

"Eliminating criminal penalties for those carrying small amounts of illicit drugs for personal use will reduce stigma and harm and provide another tool for British Columbia to end the overdose crisis," said Carolyn Bennett, Canada's Minister of Mental Health and Addictions and Associate Minister of Health.

Premier Kenney claimed that opioid deaths have fallen in the province by 47 per cent from their peak last year.

In Calgary, the peak number of non-pharmaceutical deaths reached 62 in February of this year. July, the last month of data that was available from the province's substance use surveillance data, showed that number fell to 29.

This year's average of deaths from opioids was up in Calgary to 41 per month, from 40 in 2020. For the data available from January to July of 2022, 284 Calgarians died from non pharmaceutical opioid use. In the same period of months in 2021, there were 251 deaths.