March 2019 Newsletter
I’m writing you on a Thursday evening from a crowded bus on the QE2 en route to Edmonton at the end of February. At the start of my third term, a year and a half ago, I took on the assignment of being Council’s representative on the Board of the Family and Community Support Services (FCSS) Association of Alberta and since then, roughly every six weeks, I’ve taken a Thursday night bus ride to attend the Friday morning board meetings in our capital city.
The FCSS funding partnership between the provincial government and Alberta municipalities is a one-of-a-kind in Canada program that has been offering locally-tailored prevention-focused services since the 1960s. What was suspected back then, we now know: every $1 spent on preventing social issues saves society up to $13 in addressing these issues once they’ve taken hold - costs largely associated with housing and shelters, police and other emergency and city services, and to our provincial health care system.
Since I was elected in 2010, City Council has deliberately contributed more than the base 20% necessary to participate in FCSS (between 25-30%), has plowed other one-time funds into prevention (we’re currently in year 2 of a 6 year, $3million/year prevention-focused trial program), and has most importantly undertaken much broader strategic prevention work - our ~$10million poverty reduction task force produced the Great Neighbourhoods-affirming Enough for All Strategy, and our current $10million commitment to addressing mental health and addictions has partnered with Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and the Bloomberg Group and is working to produce a blueprint for municipal governments all over the world.
I laid all of this out last night, Thursday, when I attended a heated meeting at the Forest Lawn Community Association Hall to participate in a three-community discussion (Forest Lawn, Southview, Albert Park-Radisson Heights) about the proposed mobile supervised consumption site that the provincial government has partnered with the HIV Community Link to deploy somewhere in the area in an attempt to address the crisis of overdose deaths claiming our East Calgary neighbours that are suffering from addictions.
The neighbours in attendance were understandably extremely concerned - this concern being further agitated by the well reported recent police findings of an uptick in crime and social disorder in the Beltline surrounding Calgary’s first supervised consumption facility at the Sheldon Chumir Centre (as well as by a lot of misinformation, which is sadly confusing every issue facing democracies today).
There were a lot of points of view in the room that night but the big questions posed to me had to do with anger about why the city was proposing to do this to Greater Forest Lawn, what I was doing to fight deployment of the proposed mobile supervised consumption facility, and why the HIV Community Link was unresponsive to community concerns and hell-bent on negatively impacting the area with a wrong-headed response to the problem. In the raucous and swirling back-and-forth I attempted to make and reiterate the following points to help establish a baseline understanding. Addictions are ravaging every community in Calgary, and the illicit drug supply is toxically compromised with all kinds life-threatening additives. As such we are experiencing a genuine crisis of overdose deaths and I feel compelled to share this information with the entire ward.
Supervised consumption has been proven to save lives and reduce harm. Supervised consumption is an emergency measure being undertaken with qualified partners, like the HIV Community Link, by Alberta Health Services. While the City of Calgary does not have jurisdiction nor expertise in this emergency measure, the social and criminal implications of illicit drug addictions cross boundaries and we are definitely a stakeholder in the discussion of where and how to deploy such public health measures.
To reiterate, supervised consumption is an emergency measure quite distinct from the deep preventative work we are undertaking to address this crisis’ root causes. The emergency-driven experiment currently being contemplated in Greater Forest Lawn is to determine whether a mobile supervised consumption facility (in the form of a specially configured RV), a measure that was developed to interface with homeless drug addict populations, will be effective in serving a residentially-based addict population. No one knows.
What we do know is that, contrary to the impression of many of the people in the community, the HIV Community Link has been extremely responsive to community concerns and input. Their original intention, when the idea of undertaking this emergency measure was proposed a year ago, it was to be fully operating in the community by now. They have yet to deploy and have substantially changed both their original strategy and location in response to legitimate concerns. And with the recent findings of increased crime and disorder in the Beltline, they are yet again delaying deployment pending the development of a fully wrought mitigation plan with the Police and the development of a good neighbour agreement with the host communities.
The grim calculus we face is balancing the need to save lives and provide a potential path to wellness for our neighbours who are afflicted with addictions, versus our concerns for the safety and livability of our communities. In East Calgary we have long suffered from the stigma of being a community suffering from crime and social disorder. This is frankly an untrue perception - Greater Forest Lawn for the last decade at least has been measurably safer than the Beltline. What East Calgary does have in spades is a supportive, diverse community and I’m extremely hopeful that we’ll be able to strike the right balances between long and short term measures to support each other that will continue to build the social and physical fabrics of our Great Neighbourhoods.