Resurrecting Riverview Hospital is resonating with Maple Ridge residents as one possible way to address homelessness.
More people from Maple Ridge and Pitt Meadows signed a petition (167) than any other city in Metro Vancouver. Coquitlam had the next highest number of signatures, at 124, while Vancouver had 106.
“We’ve had so much response from Maple Ridge,” said Nancy Furness, with the Coalition for a Healthy Riverview.
The group wants the remaining grounds of the former Riverview Hospital restored as a “centre of excellence for mental wellness.”
Maple Ridge council has also endorsed the group.
“I just keep on seeing, Maple Ridge, Maple Ridge … these signatures just keep on coming in,” Furness said.
So far, 1,160 people signed the petition.
“There is just this huge groundswell. I think it’s partly because of the mental-health crisis we’re seeing now with fentanyl. It’s brought it to a head. I think there is a sense of urgency with the election,” said Furness, a Port Coquitlam resident.
“It’s an incredibly powerful healing space and I think to keep it intact, I think, is the beauty of it.”
Furness said people in Maple Ridge and Pitt Meadows are interested in the issue and that’s coming out in the comments being made with the change.org petition, entitled Restore Riverview Hospital and Lands as a Centre of Excellence for Mental Health.
The petition is directed at housing minister Rich Coleman.
“They’re actually taking the time to comment on it,” Furness said.
The vision for what should occur at Riverview has changed over time, and if reopened won’t see the creation of n asylum.
“We’ve progressed quite significantly from that approach.”
Coquitlam Mayor Richard Stewart supports the goal.
But Furness added the Coalition for a Healthy Riverview hasn’t yet clarified exactly what it wants to see on the 244-acre grounds, on Lougheed Highway, where there are more than 1,800 trees.
The property is estimated to be worth $50 million.
Furness added it’s too soon to say how reopening Riverview would affect the number of homeless people in the region.
Maple Ridge child psychiatrist Dr. Biju Mathew said the same thing. Not all homeless people are mentally ill, Mathew said.
Opening Riverview won’t solve all the problems, he added.
But there’s a small percentage of people who would be better off in a facility, he said.
Mathew believes in the Housing First principle, in which homeless people should be housed first, then given support, and help with personal issues.
From an economic perspective, that’s the best approach, Mathew said.
Each homeless person costs the government about $100,000 a year, in policing, emergency medical or criminal costs.
“They all add up, significantly.”
But, he said, just providing them homes costs about $30,000 a year.
Maple Ridge council called for re-opening Riverview in 2013, led by Coun. Bob Masse. The Union of B.C. Municipalities then supported Maple Ridge’s proposal.
Masse initially got involved after serving on a community health steering committee in the 1990s, implementing the NDP’s Closer to Home initiative, which led to the downsizing of Riverview.
“I was absolutely appalled that’s what they wanted to do,” Masse said.
“Because it was obvious, they were closing Riverview with no place to put anybody. It was just a clueless exercise. It was just a disaster.”
Riverview was closed with “very little of the community support that it was supposed to be based on.”
Masse said that, today, with a new centre operating, some people could stay at the centre a few months, then go back to their communities.
In 2015, the Liberal government announced two new mental health buildings for the Riverview site, totaling 143 beds.
The buildings, opening in 2019, are to house three programs relocated from Burnaby, for a net gain of only 17 beds, at a cost of $175 million.
Another 75 new mental health beds are supposed to open at the old Royal Columbian Hospital site in 2019. There’s also a new mental health centre opening in Vancouver General Hospital, with 100 more beds within two years.
A new mental health centre at Riverview should have 500 to 600 beds, Masse said earlier.
According to the Coalition for a Healthy Riverview, the downsizing of the old Riverview Hospital has been linked to a “dramatic increase in drug use and addiction … especially within the deinstitutionalized population.”
Not providing housing and support is a major factor in the “present mental-health crisis in communities throughout B.C.,” the coalition says.
The National Trust for Canada listed Riverview as one of Canada’s Top 10 most endangered heritage sites in 2013. However, that was opposed by the B.C. government in 2009.
Many of the comments in the petition come from mental health professionals who support re-opening Riverview.
Maple Ridge-Pitt Meadows MLA Doug Bing said previously that the current trend is not to build large facilities as was done in the past.