With less than 1,000 days to go before B.C. welcomes the world for the 2010 Winter Olympics, anxious officials are starting to wonder if the regionâ€™s homelessness problem wonâ€™t overshadow the celebrations.
Some critics have even speculated there could be more homeless bedding down in the streets than athletes marching into BC Place on opening night. The thought of legions of homeless freezing in doorways, sleeping in tents or crowding into shelters has some top politicians, including Vancouver Mayor Sam Sullivan and Premier Gordon Campbell, wondering aloud if closing Riverview wasnâ€™t a bad move.
The two right-leaning pols are starting to sing from the same hymn book as labour-backed Port Coquitlam Mayor Scott Young, who championed housing for homeless at Riverview before he was sidelined with personal problems.
Of course, missing from all this speculation is informed policy on whether itâ€™s a good idea â€“ or even possible â€“ to re-open Riverview, effectively turning back the clock on de-institutionalization.
Sullivan, in his Civil City project, acknowledges that de-instutionalization in the 1970s and 1980s contributed to the cityâ€™s homeless population, with as many as 500 people in the Downtown Eastside having mental health issues. Many homeless, in the Tri-Cities as well as downtown, suffer from mental illness and have drug problems, which makes them difficult to house.
Compassionate care at Riverview is an attractive option, with its peaceful gardens and long bus ride away from preying drug dealers. But except for two new buildings run by Fraser Health, and a third planned, the rest of the facilities are decrepit and canâ€™t be used. And re-opening Riverview would mean reversing the current process, which has people moving out to community facilities.
Before anybody gets too carried away with the idea of shuffling homeless people to Riverview ahead of the Olympics hoopla, itâ€™s time for some open and frank discussion about whether revitalizing the hospital is desirable and practicable. At the same time, on-the-ground outreach and cash for mental health programs and other supportive housing options shouldnâ€™t be overlooked.
Re-opening Riverview may be one answer but itâ€™s not the only answer.