Housing operators have seen a rise in violence and incidents of rooms being taken over by criminals to store guns and drugs.

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Wednesday’s fatal shooting in a B.C. Housing building in the Downtown Eastside is the latest in a spate of drug-related violence that advocates say the government must urgently address through drug decriminalization, enhanced social housing with wraparound supports and more treatment services for people with mental-health and addiction issues.

Government critics say that four years after the creation of the Ministry of Mental Health and Addictions more people are homeless or dying from a toxic drug supply, which points to a failure to develop a comprehensive plan to deal with the crisis.

Shania Paulson, 24, has been identified as the woman who was shot through a door at 4 a.m. on Wednesday as she walked through a hallway of the six-storey Arco Hotel, a single-room-occupancy building at 83 West Pender St. The shooter, believed to have escaped through the suite’s window, hasn’t been arrested.

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Janice Abbott, executive director of Atira Property Management, which operates the B.C. government-owned hotel, said she believes the shooting was a result of a dispute between two drug dealers who were long-term tenants of the building. The victim was caught in the gunfire as her boyfriend banged on the door to one of the units.

Abbott said it’s clear drug-related violence is increasing in Vancouver and she said supportive housing operators don’t have the tools to address the prevalence of guns and drug dealers inside the buildings.

“We know we have dealers in most of our buildings,” she said. “People ask why don’t you evict the dealers. Because people use (drugs) so they’ll just be replaced with other dealers.”

Supportive housing staff are unable to search rooms for weapons or prohibit guests because the buildings are covered by the Residential Tenancy Act, Abbott said.

Atira operates 15 housing programs in Vancouver for women and children, nine in Surrey, one in Burnaby and one in Richmond. In January, the nearby Atira-run Gastown Hotel was the site of Vancouver’s first homicide of the year, when one man was killed and another seriously injured after a double stabbing inside the rooming house at 112 Water St.

Tanya Fader, housing director for the Portland Hotel Society, which runs 16 supportive housing buildings and shelters around Vancouver, said she’s also seen an increase in violence and more cases in which criminals take over tenants’ rooms to store weapons and drugs.

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Abbott and Fader said decriminalization of hard drugs and increased access to a safe supply of pharmaceutical-grade opioids would reduce people’s reliance on drug dealers who prey on the most vulnerable.

“As long as we don’t decriminalize those substances, it stays in the criminal world,” Fader said.

Both the B.C. government and the City of Vancouver are pushing for decriminalization of simple possession of illicit drugs and have asked Health Canada to grant an exemption to federal drug laws.

Fader is also seeing woefully inadequate early intervention for substance use and mental-health issues that keep people in a cycle of poverty and violence.

“With the number of people that have suffered and continue to die, so many of them from toxic drug supply and the violence linked to engaging in street activity to survive, all those things are so harmful,” Fader said. “It would be great if we could see a more decisive or brave action to make changes within our health system.”

Jeremy Hunka, spokesman for the Union Gospel Mission, which operates a shelter in the DTES, said the province needs thousands of units of social housing with wraparound supports “and access to a care worker or mental-health worker so if someone is in crisis, they have help right away.”

The B.C. Liberals say it’s clear the government is failing to provide wraparound supports to people with complex health challenges four years after the creation of the Ministry of Mental Health and Addictions.

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“In these last four years, homelessness is up dramatically,” said Todd Stone, Liberal MLA for Kamloops-South Thompson, speaking during Question Period. “Tent cities are popping up everywhere. Overdoses and deaths from overdoses are up. The addiction crisis is worse than it’s ever been — again, under this government.”

Communities and social service agencies are begging the government for additional resources so they can better support vulnerable populations, he said.

Responding to Stone in Question Period, Minister of Mental Health and Addictions Sheila Malcolmson insists the government is doubling existing addiction treatment beds and adding urgent primary care centres in communities across B.C. Malcolmson said the province expanded online mental-health supports and opened B.C.’s first mental-health-and-response centre in Surrey and a new mental-health-and-wellness centre at Royal Columbian in New Westminster.

She also admitted more needs to be done, especially in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic that has exacerbated the drug crisis.

“The pandemic has made everything worse,” Malcolmson said. “It has increased homelessness. It has increased the overdose crisis. It has stretched people’s personal mental health. It has meant that mental-health and addiction services have had to go to half-capacity and modify their operations. Everything is harder right now.”

Dr. Bill MacEwan, former head of psychiatry at St. Paul’s Hospital in Vancouver and co-chairman of the Building Community Society of Greater Vancouver, would like to see an expansion of addiction treatment centres and better data that show what treatment services are available and how soon they can be accessed. Too often, he said, people go into detox only to be released back into a shelter because a treatment bed isn’t available for weeks.

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“Decriminalization is a step in the right direction and so is safe supply,” MacEwan said. “But you also have to make drug treatment and recovery a more accessible possibility.”

In response to the shooting at the Arco Hotel, B.C. Housing said in a statement that it’s saddened “by any preventable loss of life in our communities.”

The agency said people living in B.C. Housing-funded supportive buildings have access to targeted support services including links to community-based health programs, including primary health care, and mental-health and addiction recovery services.

B.C. Housing said non-profit staff are on-site round-the-clock and all staff have the appropriate training and skills necessary to support clients.

— With files from Scott Brown 

kderosa@postmedia.com
Twitter.com/katiederosayyj

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