There was a sign on the door and it read: “Our children are not safe.” Some 800 people filed through those doors at Debeck Elementary in Richmond Dec. 1 of last year. Many of them were parents with children. As they all filed in, women handed out little stickers of a pink house in a circle with a line drawn through it like a non-smoking sign.
The rally was set up by the Caring Citizens of Richmond, a grassroots collective that banded together last May in opposition of Turning Point Recover Society’s proposed 32-bed residential recovery facility on Ash Street.
“We support this project but we ask them to maybe have it somewhere else,” said Vivian Hui, member of the Caring Citizens of Richmond.
Seven speakers that represented the neighbourhood’s various ethnic groups presented a variety of claims that such a facility would decrease property value in the neighbourhood, increase crime rates, pose a danger to the children, etc., all running up the fact that Turning Point is not welcome. There were no RCMP officers or addictions specialists at the meeting to clarify or verify any of their claims.
“These people have used all the wrong tactics to terrify people,” executive director of Turning Point Brenda Plant told the Straight at that meeting. “They’re already condemning us but they don’t really know what we do. All they know is that we provide services for drug addicts and people in recovery.”
“Our clients are not court ordered, they’re not criminals, they just have problems—just like everyone in this room has a problem,” she said.
“The so-called Caring Citizens of Richmond will tell you that it’s just numbers and it’s density,” said Michael Goehring, former president of the board of directors, “but everything else they say, in terms of their materials and their rhetoric, indicates there’s a discriminatory attitude towards people with addiction and substance abuse issues.”
Turning Point has offered residential recovery for addicts seeking treatment for 25 years in Vancouver and Richmond with no complaints or increased criminal activity. These claims supported by both the RCMP and Vancouver Police Department—although VPD spokesperson Jana McGuiness said tracking crime growth in areas with treatment facilities would be too difficult assess because “crime is everywhere.”
Turning Point might have the advantage of Bill 23 in B.C.’s legislature to help them out. As of April 9, the provincial health bill may require cities and towns to set aside space for services for people with addictions or mental disabilities. While the bill doesn't specifically mention the Turning Point proposal, it imposes a requirement on municipalities to ensure that people with addictions don't all have to leave town to get help.
Bill 23 states that the health minister can “require that a community planning process be undertaken to address the needs of the population within the community.” This has already been done at a municipal level in Richmond, through the 2001 Group Home Task Force recommendations. The Task Force states, among other things, that a neighbourhood consultation is necessary in the planning process. Turning Point held one the week before Caring Citizens held their rally, but none of the 390 people who attended seemed to take it too seriously—according to both Plant and Goehring, many of them showed up to argue the necessity for such a treatment facility in their neighbourhood.
In the meantime, there are currently 130 people on the waiting list for Turning Point in Richmond, many of them women with children. The nine beds at the society’s Odlin Road facility are for men only, leaving nothing for women and no supportive housing units for recovering addicts once they complete the program. Plant says many of these people end up seeking treatment in the Downtown Eastside or they fall back into their old addiction-supporting environments.
This is what makes the Ash Street proposal so unique: clients will have both levels of care on the same piece of land.
Richmond city staff are currently reviewing Turning Point’s application for 20 support recovery beds, 10 for men and 10 for women seeking recovery from substance abuse; one care-taker suite; and 11 self-contained affordable housing units—which Turning Point says are for clients who’ve already completed the program and need extra help with independent living and integrating back into society.
If the application is rejected, the province’s new legislation could open the door for the society to file a judicial-review application and obtain a court order forcing Richmond to reconsider such a decision.
Vancouver Coastal Health’s 2006 “Mental Health and Addictions Supportive Housing Framework,” states that supportive housing should be spread throughout the city to “support individuals to stay in their own communities and to avoid any over concentration in particular areas.”
Dr. Christian Rucker, an addictions specialist based out of Vancouver General Hospital who works with Turning Point patients once a week, says spreading treatment facilities around residential neighbourhoods could give addicts a chance to escape the cycle of addiction in areas like the DTES and Whalley in Surrey.
“The most important part of managing addiction is a social treatment of taking these people out of isolation and giving them a new life and reintegrating them meaningfully in society,” says Dr. Christian Rucker. “I see the recovery movement as incredibly important in that.”
“Turning Point works because we’re in community,” Plant says. “Addiction is a disease of shame and isolation and our job here is to reintegrate these people back into community. It’s not to further shame them by putting them out on a farm somewhere. They are members of the community and they have every right to be in their home community and to get the services that they need and want.”
Residential treatment, with its rigid structure and ongoing support, acts like a community within a community. Instead of a lifestyle revolving around addiction, facilities like Turning Point offer a lifestyle that revolves around people in recovery. It’s a dose of sobriety for many of the patients who come in mentally and spiritually exhausted and desperate for change. The facilities won’t allow a client who might put the staff at risk. In a way, the staff acts as watchdogs for the neighbourhood; if the staff is safe then so are the neighbours.
Turning Point’s model of treatment is just one type of treatment on a continuum of services for people with substance abuse problems. Vancouver council is currently focusing on supportive housing with a whole continuum for people with addictions and mental health issues to stabilize their lives and re-connect with the community. Vancouver’s drug policy coordinator Don McPherson says all 650 of Vancouver Coastal Health’s proposed supportive housing units will be spread throughout the city in every neighbourhood within the next 10 years.
Never mind treatment, the people need education
Ernie Mendoza’s speech was greeted with noisy cheers and applause on Dec. 1. He’s held in rather high regard amongst Richmond residents, it seems. The Caring Citizens of Richmond chair represents the some 12,000 people who oppose the Turning Point’s proposal. He’s been the most assertive and aggressive in his approach to fight the project, claiming that because Turning Point has never run a 32-bed facility, they’re setting the community up for calamity. He believes that such a facility will subvert the nature of the largely Chinese-and-family-oriented neighbourhood.
“A large institution like this does not fit in the community,” he says. “It is not compatible of the nature of the community.”
Richmond’s 2001 Group Home Task Force—which was formed after Turning Point opened its first facility on Odlin Road—recommends that a group home can house no more than 7-10 beds and must be located on a thoroughfare (meanwhile, same Task Force also suggests that a “negative impact on home values is unlikely”). In Mendoza’s opinion, the residents will oppose anything of that size, even if it were a 32-bed convent.
“It is not logical that, for example, if you were to take [an] area, and right in the middle of that area, you build a zoo. It doesn’t work. It is not logical. It is not useful. It does not fit into the area,” he says.
But many of the arguments that Mendoza and the Caring Citizens of Richmond are projecting are common with inadequate risk communication, according to UBC psychology professor Richard Mathias. The perception that they present is more a manifestation of prejudice than of risk, due in part to the stereotype of DTES drug addicts as “bad people.”
“This is a classic case of risk communication maybe not being carried out as well as it might on either side,” says Mathias.
He believes it’s the responsibility of the experts to provide the public with the necessary information and laying it out clearly to assure people that controversial projects won’t be to the detriment of the community. This is not being done as effectively as it could be, he says, even though research indicates that treatment facilities have very little negative impact on the surrounding communities.
“If we gave them a much better feel of how treatment and management of drug addiction actually works in these kinds of settings, maybe they would become more familiar with it. With familiarity comes less of this irrational type prejudice that seems to be occurring,” he says.
“If we don’t address those things, then we can’t expect to influence the perceptions of the people who are carrying out the many complaints.”
Vancouver Coastal Health’s 2006 “Mental Health and Addictions Supportive Housing Framework,” states that comprehensive community engagement and education is vital for the city to “move forward with the maximum understanding, support and involvement from those parties who may feel they will be impacted.”
But Mathias believes the responsibility of education shouldn’t be laid squarely on the shoulders of organizations like Turning Point. They typically don’t have the risk-management skills necessary to deal with the usual backlash of a subverted status quo. The information needs to be provided for the public by public officials—respected members of the community like the RCMP, the municipality and the health authority—who believe that controversial projects are beneficial to the greater good.
Instead, the “system” has let Turning Point take the lead on the project and has unwittingly instilled a fear within the community.
“It’s easy to rile up a crowd and get, you know, 500 people to come out by publishing a leaflet that says all these horrible things are going to happen to you and your neighbourhood if this facility gets built,” Don McPherson says.
Public education usually only happens once the hysteria gets worked up. The education then takes place under volatile conditions. But with the province now backing public consultations in regards to Bill 23 there may now be adequate resources available to stem many of the public’s fears immediately and address the concerns rationally.
“There should be more focus on how stigmatizing these kinds of health problems is not productive and is in fact counterproductive to them and communities being healthy communities,” McPherson says.
He believes media accounts of illegal drugs over the last hundred years have been largely responsible in creating a “lightening rod for people’s fears” when it comes to users of cocaine and heroin.
12,000 people have signed a petition against Turning Point based on these notions feeding the public’s fears. The Caring Citizen and their faceless cyber affiliate NIABY (Not In Anyone’s Backyard) are using of what Michael Goehring calls “guerilla tactics” ensure that many of those people sign without knowing the true facts of what Turning Point is all about.
Ernie Mendoza was the last to speak at the December meeting. He taunted Turning Point for their “lack of credentials” and their supposed inability to maintain a facility of the proposed size.
He told the crowd: “You represent an incredible collective energy that can move mountains!” and the crowd cheered.
He said: “However, if that mountain refuses to move, you can use your ultimate weapon of mass decision—your ballot, next November!” More whoops and hollers.
Michael Goehring, former chair of the Turning Point’s board of directors, stood at the side, shaking his head. At one point he said at a minimal volume: “Shame on you.”
To which someone in the audience cried back: “No, shame on you!”
And then Mendoza said: “Turning Point fails to demonstrate clear accountability and responsibility to clear the doubts of every citizen concerned about their plans. Ladies and gentlemen, today you have spoken. And you’ve given us an overwhelming decision—to turn down this proposal!”
Mendoza thrust his microphone in the air as the crowd whistled and booed. He stood there smiling. Sweating. Beaming. The crowd cheered for a minute before erupting into a thunderous chant of “No! No! No! No!” with percussive clapping and more screaming and they all streamed out of the auditorium. Their message was clear. Turning Point isn’t welcome.
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This story isn’t as balanced as it should be. Truly objective journalism is a myth—or so says I—but I do try to offer both perspectives when I’m writing on topics of public debate.
I had trouble with doing it this time around. It was rather difficult to include the perspectives of the Caring Citizens of Richmond—the self-identified NIABY’s (Not in Anyone’s Back Yard)—because many of their arguments were based on opinion disguised in rhetoric centred on stereotypes rather than on the realities of drug-treatment. Their concerns for the safety of their children and their neighbourhood are absolutely valid, but from what I’ve witnessed talking to some of these people and being a resident of the neighbourhood, it’s been really difficult for me to take their scare-mongering seriously. And, thus, the article has a particular bent.
So, yeah, I live three doors down from the proposed site. My parents hate the idea. My brother has threatened to burn the facility down once construction gets under way. My sister and I (well, I, mostly) have instigated voluminous arguments at family dinners about whether a drug rehabilitation facility is necessary in our community. I absolutely believe that it is and I’d be more than happy to accommodate and welcome anybody with such an illness who is fighting to get better into my neighbourhood. My parents…well, they don’t like it so much.
And the discussions, er, arguments that are taking place within my home are reflective of the arguments taking place outside. It’s an important discussion for any community to have—where they stand on addiction, so we can all come to an understanding to what the status quo is—and I’m happy to have been a part of it.
Researching and writing this story has helped me understand my own position on where I stand with drug recovery, where it’s located and why it’s necessary. I enjoyed researching it. I met some very interesting people—addicts, former addicts, people who hate addicts, people who have the interests of society in mind but can’t seem to agree on what societies interests should be, and people who care only about themselves.
I wanted to write a story about the NIMBY people vs. the rehab people—a good vs. idiotic type of story. As I started investigating the issue and as the humanity if it all unfolded, I realized it wasn’t so black and white. There were good and bad people on both sides. Idiots inhabit every cranny of our fair society, as do the intelligent ones. It’s like anything, really—bad people are attracted to everything, so long as it can serve their selfish purpose. And I saw that in the Turning Point issue—selfish people on both sides.
But in the end, I wrote the best story I could in defense of Turning Point. Richmond, and the whole of Metro Vancouver, desperately needs more facilities. Turning Point is needed, as I see it, and I’m the one writing the story. There’s a lot at stake here, more than just a neighbourhood. Addiction is everywhere, in every neighbourhood, in and around Vancouver. It’s a sad reality and the people who propel misinformation with false stereotypes and scare-mongering aren’t solving the problem.
Note: I started work on this story before I arrived in the UK, and many of my source materials, from newspapers and documents, were acquired while still in Canada.
1) Brenda Plant, executive director of Turning Point Recovery Facility, during a Dec. 1 rally held by the Caring Citizens of Richmond opposing Turning Point’s proposal. I also talked to her during a tour through Turning Point’s recovery facility on Odlin Road in Richmond later that month.
2) Michael Goehring, former chairman of Turning Point’s board of directors, in several interviews—one at the Dec. 1 rally, a second at a coffee shop in downtown Vancouver and a third during a tour of Turning Point’s two recovery facilities on W. 13 Ave. in Vancouver—all between December and January.
3) Ernie Mendoza, Caring Citizens for Richmond chair and president of Kumon Happy Learning Centre in Richmond, at his office at Kumon in January.
4) Vivian Hui, CCR member, at the Dec. 1 rally.
5) Bob Harrison, CCR member, at the Dec. 1 rally and several days later at Blenz Coffee in Richmond.
6) Dr. Bruce Alexander, Simon Fraser University professor and drug-treatment researcher, in a phone interview.
7) Jana McGuiness, Vancouver Police Department spokesperson, in a phone interview.
8) Nycki Basra, Richmond RCMP spokesperson, in a phone interview.
9) Linda Reid, Richmond East MLA, at her office in January.
10) Dr. Christian Rucker, addictions specialist, at an interview at Vancouver General Hospital in January, as well as a phone interview.
11) Dr. Richard Mathias, professor of psychology at University of British Columbia, in a phone interview.
12) Don McPherson, city of Vancouver drug policy coordinator, in a phone interview.
13) Vince Battistelli, Executive Director of Richmond Addiction Services and George Passmore, Director of Clinical Services, in a joint interview at the office in January.
Primary Source Material:
1) Bill 23 – 2008, Public Health Act, British Columbia Legislative Assembly
2) 2001 Richmond Group Home Task Force Recommendations
3) Vancouver Coastal Health’s 2006 “Mental Health and Addictions Supportive Housing Framework”
4) Numerous Richmond News and Richmond Review articles and letters to the editors. Some of these can be found in the Richmond News archives, if they’re working, at Canada.com/Richmond news (note: Canada.com has had some problems in the past with their archives.)
5) Turning Point’s facts and figures, applications for rezoning, distributed as a media kit by the society at the Dec. 1 rally.
6) Economic Benefits of Drug Treatment: A Critical Review of the Evidence For Policy Makers; Belenko, Steven; Patapis, Nicholas; French, Michael T.; for Treatment Research Institute, University of Pennsylvania.
7) BC Chamber of Commerce on Addiction
8) Turning Point’s Cost of Substance Abuse in B.C.
9) Letter to Richmond Mayor Malcom Brodie from Ernie Mendoza
1) niaby-richmond.com - /apps.niaby-richmond.com/Forum/message/index.cfm?topicGroupID=2478&topicID=2149&messageID=0&start=0&last=0
Note: for a city that’s supposedly wed-savvy, finding online forums and web sources for Vancouver addiction recovery was surprisingly difficult. Much of my research consisted of phone interviews and emails where sources provided me with documents I couldn’t find on the web.