Last week while at a local convenience store, I observed a young man demonstrating the telltale signs of being homeless. His hair and beard were overgrown and unkempt and his clothing was filthy. He appeared to be in his 20s and he got in line behind me. The young man was very polite at the counter as he deposited a handful of mixed change in order to purchase a cigar. What was most striking though was that when this man spoke it became quite obvious that this man was suffering from a developmental disability.
About a month ago I had the opportunity to be taken on a tour of The Vocational and Rehabilitation Research Institute by a friend. This is a non-profit institute that works in affiliation with the University of Calgary and has been doing so since 1969. This institute works with people with disabilities and helps them in a community support sort of role. The facility boasts a bottle depot and a contract with the Calgary Airport that employs people with disabilities. There are also some great recreational and rehabilitation facilities provided as well as their research facilities.
I am sure that my description of the facility is doing it terrible justice so I do suggest that people click on the link to it in order to learn more about it. What I was most impressed with was that the people there are dedicated to trying to find rational and successful approaches to helping people with disabilities in our community.
What I was not impressed with was the condition of the facility itself. While the functional areas were as well maintained as possible by staff with limited resources, entire sections were completely shut down. The building is getting old and they simply can’t afford the maintenance on sections of it. Old dorm rooms are now being used as offices and I saw three desks jammed into what obviously served as an individual dorm rooms for patients. The floors above that level were completely closed as was what used to be a cafeteria.
Right-of-center people are often referred to as uncaring ogres and individualists to the point of not caring for anybody aside from themselves. In reality, most conservative-minded people live by the principle that we should take care of those who can’t take care of themselves as opposed to those who won’t take care of themselves.
It should go without question that many people with mental disabilities and disorders fall into that category of not being able to take care of themselves. The degree of need varies from some limited community support to full institutional care.
So why the hell is this realm of government programming so chronically underfunded?
Crime and homelessness are constantly issues that people are concerned about. Unfortunately the solution always appears to be blind spending. For a person with a mental disability, affordable housing is not going to be of aid. New expensive downtown public washrooms will not help these people nor will expansion of homeless shelters. What is required are programs suited to helping these people based on the unique challenges that they face.
Sadly, facilities such as the The Vocational and Rehabilitation Research Institute do not provide for the photo-op ribbon cutting ceremonies that new public toilets and expansions of homeless shelters provide. Such help for people is complicated and not romantic thus gets ignored by politicians.
Decades ago a misguided initiative of deinstitutionalization took off in general public policy. It was considered inhumane that some people be kept in institutions for life and many people have been tossed in the streets due to this. Many of those people never should have been discharged and many of these people are the ones we see covered in rags under our bridges. The number of beds in mental health facilities in Canada are now a fraction of what they used to be. That statistic is not a victory, it means that thousands of people were put out on the streets that never had the life-skills required in order to make it on their own.
I am not fond of the NDP. They are far to the other side of the ideological spectrum from myself. Credit must be given to the Alberta NDP today though for their persistence in obtaining and exposing a damning report of the Progressive Conservative’s treatment of mental health needs in Alberta.
As is all too common with our provincial government, they have acted very strongly to suppress information that they determine to be detrimental to the Progressive Conservative Party of Alberta. A report entitled “Beyond Beds…to Balanced Care Mental Health” was commissioned and presented to Alberta Health and Wellness and the Alberta Mental Health Board in 2007 and was approved by the Steering Committee on Mental Health.
The report then disappeared.
Alberta Health and Wellness refused an access to information request by the NDP to see the report. Albertans paid for this report, why the hell can’t we see it? It took a leak (somebody, somewhere has a conscience) for the NDP to obtain the report.
It is easy to see why the Progressive Conservatives wanted to hide that report. The report is very damning of the government and their complete inaction on mental health issues. It shows that Alberta has four times fewer mental health beds than the national average. The national average is too damn low as it is.
Rather than act on shortcomings, our government works to hide them. The Stelmach government does not care about our most vulnerable in society, they simply want to remain in power.
While on their decade long spending spree, the PC government has more than doubled provincial spending. While pissing away our tax-dollars to who knows where, the PC government was also starving our mental health programs to the point where Alberta is the shame of the country. How do we spend far more per-capita in Alberta than any other province yet have the least amount of mental health beds? What are the priorities of our government?
It is past time to do more than pay lip-service to crime and homelessness in Alberta. How much improvement would we see in these areas if we invested in helping people with mental challenges instead of working to hide them? We will never know the answer to that as long as Ed Stelmach remains in power.
Keep these thoughts in mind every time you see some poor soul dressed in rags while pushing a shopping cart and talking to themselves.