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Provincial task force will focus on homelessness, addiction, public safety in Calgary

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The Alberta government has formed a special task force in an effort to address issues of addiction, homelessness and crime in Calgary.

Headed by Seniors, Community and Social Services Minister Jeremy Nixon, the Calgary Public Safety and Community Response Task Force has 12 members, who met for the first time Friday.

Approximately $187 million in funding has been set aside by the province to address social issues in Alberta's urban centres, with nearly $58 million going directly to support systems in Calgary.

Mental Health and Addiction Minister Nicholas Milliken says these social issues are complex, but must be treated to avoid long-term physical and mental health concerns.

"When you have an individual who has overdosed perhaps four times in one day, we don't really have a very good mechanism with regards to ensuring … that person gets the help that they need or want," said Milliken.

"So we're definitely looking at all options to see if we can figure out a way to best help those individuals and save their lives."

The funding will cover a number of initiatives, including:

  • Increasing treatment capacity with a new recovery community in Calgary;
  • Transforming correctional living units into treatment centres;
  • Creating hybrid health and police hubs in Calgary's downtown;
  • Expanding medical detox services;
  • Deploying harm reduction and recovery outreach teams;
  • Expanding access to emergency shelter space;
  • Piloting a service model to increase access to recovery; and
  • Improving access to affordable housing options that support recovery.

The province says this funding is in addition to more than $73 million for Calgary shelter spaces and other housing supports, along with $10 million already allocated to further increase access to addiction treatments.

ADDICTION AND HOMELESSNESS 'TOP OF MIND'

Nixon says addiction and homelessness are “top of mind” for the UCP government, but he also notes that these are complex issues.

The minister spent most of his time working for non-profits including the Mustard Seed prior to his entry into politics and says those partnerships are essential to providing support to the most vulnerable.

"The collaborative steps we are taking through this task force will help many individuals recover from addiction, find housing support and get their lives back," he said.

"By working with our partners in Calgary, I am confident that we will see positive impacts on the entire community."

When asked about specific solutions for transit safety and addictions treatment, neither Nixon nor Milliken could provide answers, instead referring to other ministers’ portfolios.

Milliken said "all options" are on the table to treat alcohol and drug addictions, but didn't clarify whether or not the government would consider legislation to admit intoxicated people into involuntary treatment if they are being held by police or social agencies.

AN 'EXTREMELY CORROSIVE' APPROACH

Euan Thomson, executive director for Each and Every: Businesses for Harm Reduction, is critical of the announcement of the task force.

Thomson says members of the team should not frame addiction with mental health issues.

"This is extremely corrosive, as it ignores the primary reason why people are dying, which is a poisoned and unregulated drug supply," he said.

Thomson says the UCP are moving toward more of a forced addiction treatment model and away from a harm reduction approach.

He says the bedrock of a good harm reduction model would be easy access and safe supply for those using illegal or unregulated drugs.

"We want to make sure those folks using unregulated drugs are not going to encounter poisoning events, you know, with benzodiazepines or fentanyl in the supply when they don't know," said Thomson.

"So we need to make sure that they understand the strength and the composition of the drugs that they're taking, first and foremost. That helps them stay alive. In fact, very few people overdose when they are taking a safe, regulated supply."

Thomson says the government is also creating unnecessary stigma that makes the general public afraid of unhoused Calgarians or those with addiction or mental health issues.

"The government will say that, you know, these people that are overdosing three, four times a day, you often hear that they need some sort of intervention, right?" he said.

"But the intervention should never be forced treatment because that actually puts people at higher risk of overdose at higher risk of death."

The task force is also being criticized for its lack of data points or metrics to evaluate whether an addiction treatment system is working at all.

Milliken says, however, the province will track the success using detailed data and records.

"We don't really have a good mechanism in regards to ensuring the person gets the help that they need and want, so we're looking at all options to see if we can figure out how to best help those individuals and help save their lives," he said.

FOCUS ON COLLABORATIVE APPROACH TO ADDICTION

Calgary Fire Department Chief Steve Dongworth and Calgary Police Chief Mark Neufeld are also on the team.

Neufeld says collaboration of emergency services is important in directing police and mental health resources together to improve public safety measures across the city.

"There's certainly a place for police to be specifically engaged but there's many times where police are not the best response," he said.

Neufeld says the biggest issues in Calgary still lie with the use of opioid drugs as well as a high prevalence of methamphetamine.

He hopes to tackle those issues specifically.

"Methamphetamine produces a different type of high and a different type of behaviour, which is lots of times associated with dangerous and unpredictable behaviour," he said.

"So it's great to be able to see leaders at this level coming together to make sure that we co-ordinate the efforts all across that continuum, so that we can have the best outcomes for people that are struggling with addictions."

Alberta recorded its deadliest year on record for drug overdoses, with more than 1,700 deaths in 2021.

Opioid deaths specifically have been on the decline in recent months, with 168 recorded in February and 92 recorded in July.

City councillors Andre Chabot and Sonya Sharp are also on the task force.

Other members include: Patricia Jones, chief executive officer with the Calgary Homeless Foundation; Jodi Two Guns, executive director of social development with the Tsuut'ina Nation; and Siksika Coun. Reuben Breaker.

CALGARY MAYOR RESPONDS TO TASK FORCE

The announcement of Calgary's task force comes on the heels of a similar plan introduced in Edmonton earlier this week.

Calgary Mayor Jyoti Gondek is in the loop on plans and invited to share input moving forward.

"I am pleased to see the establishment of a local task force to determine the most effective and meaningful approaches to creating a co-ordinated delivery model around housing, mental health and addiction supports that is much needed in Calgary," said Gondek in a statement.

"We developed a multi-agency crisis response model that was designed to care for individuals and their communities. As a result, the Government of Alberta recognized the value of investing in this integrated approach to mental health and addiction supports, as well as housing and community safety."

Gondek's experience differs from Edmonton Mayor Amarjeet Sohi, who says he was unaware of the formation of his city’s task force.

Sohi says that because council did not deliberate on who would represent them, the two councillors involved in Edmonton’s task force could not speak for Edmonton's council.

Minister of Municipal Affairs Rebecca Schultz says Sohi "was aware that this was happening." 

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