Riverview confronts homelessness

Will open 40 new beds at facility next month, but 10 times that needed, says Maple Ridge candidate

Forty beds are opening at the former Riverview Hospital site to help treat people with serious mental illness and addiction, and a Maple Ridge councillor thinks it could be the start of addressing the problem of homelessness in the Lower Mainland.

“I’m thrilled about it,” said Coun. Bob Masse, who has been advocating such a move.

Masse was on the Maple Ridge community health commission in the 1990s, when many patients were discharged from Riverview, in Coquitlam.

The NDP government’s plan was that they be cared for in smaller facilities within their communities, but the infrastructure wasn’t in place when the hospital closed.

He said mentally ill people were left to fend for themselves on the streets, and the health care system had no effective way to care for them.

He found people with Riverview clothing at his downtown chiropractic office.

Masse has wanted Riverview to be reopened, and reinstated as a centre of excellence for mental health care and support.

“The message has been, ‘We need to have Riverview in the picture,’ as part of the solution to untreated mental illness.”

Maple Ridge council added its weight to the issued in the summer of 2013, as Masse brought the idea to the Union of B.C. Municipalities conference, asking cities and towns across the province to lobby Victoria for a new Riverview.

Minutes after he took the podium, guest speaker Premier Christy Clark followed him and said Riverview would not be re-opening.

“Squashed” is how he characterized the premier’s rebuttal.

But the province is working on ending homelessness, has been seeking community input, and last November made a $20 million commitment.

Now Coast Mental Health, a non-profit service provider, is providing services for 25 men and 15 women at the former Riverview Hospital site.

Darrell Burnham, the Coast Mental Health CEO, said the clients will have already had drug and alcohol treatment and rehabilitation when they arrive.

They will mostly be people with histories of serious mental illness, addiction and homelessness. They will stay in the program at Riverview for six months to a year, then be moved into a longer-term program closer to their home.

Coast Mental Health has operated programs on the site since 2003, and there are other health care services offered there.

“It’s a response to a need,” Burnham said of the new program. “We’re very pleased, and it’s a great site for it.”

Masse researched the issue, and found that the national standard is 50 mental health beds for every 100,000 people.

B.C. is falling behind, only at an average of 38.

What’s more, many of the beds in the province being counted should not qualify, says Masse, because the agencies providing them do not offer services that will help.

There are unscrupulous operators who exist mainly to collect government funding, he said.

“There’s huge money in poverty.”

Masse believes it will take 500 to 600 beds, not 40, to impact the problem of homelessness in the Lower Mainland.

“Take the most needy people, the sickest people, and give them the care they need,” he said.

At least 40 people will have that benefit.

“Which is a great start,” Masse said.