Doctor critical of Maple Ridge homeless strategy

Mayor defends $160,000 for outreach workers.

Dr. Liz Zubek.

Dr. Liz Zubek.

A Maple Ridge family doctor who deals with people living on the streets is critical of the measures Maple Ridge is taking to deal with the issue.

Dr. Liz Zubek said council seems to have ignored current service providers in formulating its plan of action, but has committed $160,000 for new outreach workers without a competitive bid process.

Zubek noted that a body of local doctors known as the Maple Ridge Division of Family Practice has a Share Care Team and hired a nurse practitioner to offer health care services to the homeless and mentally ill from an office at the Salvation Army.

Zubek mentors the nurse, meeting with her twice a month and helping to deal with issues as they arise. Other doctors with the division also mentor her.

Zubek, who recently spent a night in a tent with a homeless woman in the camp on Cliff Avenue, said the Maple Ridge Homelessness Solutions Task Force, while in its discovery phase, did not consult the nurse practitioner or the division.

“We’re highly involved with that population,” said Zubek. “We would be a natural group to consult.”

Zubek asked to give input to the task force, but was ignored. She said there are other people and agencies working with the homeless who should have been consulted, but were not. These include current outreach workers at Alouette Home Start Society and the Salvation Army.

The physician, whose office backs on to Cliff Avenue, by the Salvation Army shelter, was also critical of the city spending $160,000 for four outreach workers for a six-month term, awarding the contracts to Alouette Addictions and Canadian Mental Health in a “sole sourced” process.

“Nobody else was even allowed to submit proposals,” she said.

The budget also includes $25,000 for security, but the services of bylaws and RCMP should already be included in the budget, Zubek added.

She said the city was not interested in fact finding.

“Why would they not ask for expertise? They had a pre-set agenda,” Zubek said. “And what we had to say did not meet their agenda.”

She predicts the city will detain people with mental health and addiction issues, offering them treatment and getting them off the street temporarily.

But she said proper housing must be the first priority.

“At the end [of treatment], they have no place to go and live. The risk of relapse and addition is incredibly high.

“You can’t go in there and do a clean sweep, and in six months make addiction and mental health issues go away,” said Zubek.

She said people in the homeless camp on Cliff Ave. are “legitimately suspicious” of the new outreach workers, and would prefer to deal with the people who have been supporting them, and with whom they have built trust.

Mayor Nicole Read defended council’s actions so far, and said she too has made numerous visits to the camp on Cliff Ave., and is on a first-name basis with at least three of the women there.

“Tracy, Linda, Anita – they’ve been shuffled around so long …” she said. “We are meeting with them. They are a powerful voice in the conversation.”

Council is also consulting with experts in the field, Read said, and agrees with the assertion that housing must be a priority.

“We have a whole housing conversation going on in the background.”

That includes meeting with the provincial housing agency last week.

“We’ve brought B.C. Housing to the table,” said Read. “They like what we’re doing.”

She said there is no housing announcement coming, but council is looking at service options for low barrier housing.

“It’s going to be a challenge.”

She said some in the homeless camp are considered street-entrenched people.

“Those people are very hard to house.”

Also, the city is trying to determine whether more openings can be made at Alouette Heights, a third-stage housing facility that offers 45 beds to people who have successfully completed addiction treatment, and are at risk of homelessness. Although people are supposed to be there for a limited duration, then move on to affordable rental properties, 23 have been staying there since it opened in July 2012, said the mayor.

The lack of affordable housing, the reasons that homeless people camp rather than use the Salvation Army shelter, and the demand for low barrier supportive housing for people coming right out of a homeless camp are all key issues the city is dealing with, said Read.

“We have a shelter, but right nearby we have a camp, so something is not working there with the model.”

She defended the $160,000 funding given to Alouette Addictions and Canadian Mental Health to fund outreach workers, saying it is legal and within the city’s procurement policies, and that the need was considered urgent.

“Our first order of business is that these people need help,” said the mayor.

“We have contracted the main service providers,” she said, adding that there are no local agencies with greater expertise.

She said council is in touch with Fraser Health, and has consulted at least one doctor.