The Tri-City News
By Sarah Payne
Mentally ill people living on the streets may one day be able to call Riverview Hospital home.
Vancouver Mayor Sam Sullivan wants to re-open the nearly 100-year-old facility as a "compassionate solution" for the mentally ill living on the streets. Both the premier and Health Minister George Abbott have indicated the government is interested in refurbishing Riverview.
Sullivan estimates about 1,500 people currently living on Vancouver streets would benefit by moving to the semi-independent living units - not the dormitory-style buildings - where they would be free to come and go but still receive the support they need.
The announcement came as a welcome surprise to some in Coquitlam.
"I don't have a problem with it because a lot of the people on the Downtown Eastside came from Riverview back in the '90s and late '80s," said Coquitlam Coun. Mae Reid, who chairs the city's Riverview Committee.
Riverview Hospital opened in 1913 and reached its peak population of about 4,600 patients in 1951 but, by the mid-1980s, a trend towards de-institutionalization led to closure of most buildings on the 80-hectare property.
Under the Riverview Redevelopment Project, which called for the site to remain a place of healing for those with mental illness, the beds have been placed in small, homelike facilities throughout the province, including the 20-bed Connolly Lodge and 24-bed Cottonwood Lodge on the Riverview grounds.
"I think what [Sullivan] is referring to are the new facilities like Connolly and Cottonwood," said Sydney Tomchenko, director of communications for B.C. Mental Health and Addiction Services. "But I think what he doesn't realize are that those facilities are already totally occupied by former Riverview patients as part of the redevelopment project."
Many of the older buildings don't meet today's standards and since they were closed nearly 20 years ago, they haven't been maintained.
Reid said buildings would have to be upgraded and money will be needed but society has an obligation to look after the mentally ill. She envisions potential facilities at Riverview similar to supported seniors' living, in which each person has a bachelor-style apartment with a bathroom and small kitchenette. Meals would be provided in a common setting and medical care would be provided on-site.
"It's putting people together where they have warmth and care and a peer group," she added. "It's not institutionalization. They're free to come and go, and have a place to call home."
Sandy Burpee, chair of the Tri-City Housing Coalition and co-chair of the Tri-Cities Homelessness Task Force, also supports the idea.
"I think that more supportive housing for people with mental illness is very important and very much needed," he said. The latest homeless count by the Hope for Freedom Society showed 166 homeless people living in the Tri-Cities, of whom 37% suffer from mental illness.
"As much as possible people with mental illness should be housed in the community, provided the supports are there, but opening additional spaces at Riverview would be a good step forward," Burpee said.
A spokesperson for Sullivan, who is on the Premier's Task Force on homelessness, mental illness and addiction, said the mayor's push to re-open Riverview is part of his Civil City Campaign, part of which calls for a solution to the issue of mentally ill homeless people.
"There are a number of things we're doing and Riverview is just one aspect," said David Hurford, director of communications. "There is also a basic understanding that regions and municipalities need to work together. It's not just a Vancouver problem or a Surrey problem.
"Certainly, these people in the Vancouver core come from across the country and throughout the province, and regional solutions are required," he said.