photos: Photo: Jackie Wong.

This is the sound of the engine failing

Dispatches from the front lines of a mental health crisis.

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I used to work as a mental health advocate in Vancouver’s criminal justice system. In the morning I would grab a few things from my office and head down to the cells to interview people who had been recently arrested and flagged by the system as “mentally ill.” This label, which shows up on police and correctional databases, is not exactly scientific. In fact, it refers to a wide variety of behavior, from symptoms of mania to mild depression, and can stay on someone’s record for years after the alleged incident.

 

Meeting with people in a small concrete and steel interview room, I asked them about their lives. I would try to get them a lawyer, and help make a plan for their release.

 

The people I worked with were cold, tired, frequently bruised and sick, and often mentally in distress. I worked with people whose bodies were weathered by years living on the street and in institutions, Indigenous people fleeing broken communities up north, and young angry men fresh from the foster care system.

 

I was on the front lines of Vancouver’s “mental health crisis” and I saw the institutionalized neglect of people in need brought about by unfair and inefficient budget cuts, misguided policy, and decades of underfunding.

 

When I started my job I didn’t know much about frozen legal aid tariffs, cuts to family and poverty law programs, and the systematic downsizing of advocacy programs. I did not know how overcrowded our mental health system was or how ridiculously difficult it could be to get people support for their disabilities. I did not know how frequent evictions were and how hard it was to contest them when they were unfair. But I learned.

The people I worked with were cold, tired, frequently bruised and sick, and often mentally in distress. I was on the front lines of Vancouver’s “mental health crisis” and I saw the institutionalized neglect of people in need brought about by unfair and inefficient budget cuts, misguided policy, and decades of underfunding.

 

“They receive a clear message that they don’t matter”

According to B.C.’s Ministry of Justice, 56 per cent of people in custody have a mental illness. Mentally ill people are often placed in administrative segregation, sometimes because there is simply not a bed available in a psychiatric hospital. There is little mental health or addictions support in remand centers where the majority of incarcerated people are held. Upon release they end up back in the communities they came from, where they are often disconnected from the services they need.

Every step of the process, they receive a clear message that they don’t matter. Unsurprisingly, many of the most vulnerable offenders will end up back in custody in a few weeks’ time.


Underfunding of legal aid contributes to the criminalization of mentally ill people in our communities.

I remember working with a young native man from Bella Coola who worked half the year on a fishing boat. He was arrested after getting into a heated argument with his mom, and didn’t qualify for legal aid. So he went in front of the judge after having a hurried conversation with duty council. He ended up agreeing to conditions that he abide by a curfew, not to go to any bars or liquor stores, to abstain from drugs and alcohol, and not to go in an area around where he was arrested.

He was back the next week on a new charge for failing to comply with a court order. He didn’t realize that the conditions he agreed to meant he couldn’t go back home.


Accused people who are not facing prison time generally do not qualify for criminal legal aid, as do many of B.C.’s working poor. According to the B.C. Legal Services Society, approximately 40 per cent of accused people in the B.C. justice system are self-represented.

One result of underfunded criminal legal aid is that many people agree to unworkable or unrealistic release plans from jail. This often leads to preventable instances of reoffending.


Even when someone qualifies for legal aid, the last 20 years of cuts to legal aid have reduced the standards of justice in criminal courts. Compared to salaries for most lawyers, working in legal aid pays terribly. So the system fails in two ways: it effectively punishes lawyers who take the necessary time to work with mentally ill offenders or on more complex cases; and very troublingly, many people who would otherwise benefit from legal aid don’t qualify.


One result of underfunded criminal legal aid is that many people agree to unworkable or unrealistic release plans from jail. This often leads to preventable instances of reoffending.

For example, I worked one person, Chad (names have been changed for privacy), who had been evicted from supportive housing after he was charged with threatening staff there. Chad had an undergraduate degree in economics from a school in the U.K. and received a small pension from his former employer. He also had diagnosis of bipolar disorder, which made it hard for him to hold down a job.

He didn’t qualify for legal aid and, after an excruciatingly long self-represented bail hearing, ended up being released under a set of conditions including one forbidding him from being found with matches or a lighter.


He came back to our offices a few days after his release and tried to change his release conditions because he smoked regularly. Changing your bail conditions is an involved process, one that can take at least two visits to the court. Unfortunately, Chad wasn’t able to change his conditions in time. He breached his bail, and ended up back in custody.


People who are denied legal aid often represent themselves. So courts are now full of self-represented accused that backlog the system. Currently up to 45 per cent of provincial criminal court case matters have to do with people failing to comply with a court order.


In my experience, many people in the prison system have been assessed as having FASD, yet few are actively receiving the support—or the care—they need. Instead, disabled and mentally ill offenders are released into the community with little more than a shelter bed, the clothes on their back, and a list of conditions they are supposed to follow.

 


“He was disconnected from the services that were set up to help him”

I remember Luke, a young man arrested two to three times a month for crimes like shoplifting and assault. He had a diagnosis of Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD), like many people institutionalized in the province. Also, like many others, he was disconnected from the services that were set up to help him. When Luke got arrested, he usually became upset and would hit his head against the jail walls until the guards restrained him. Luke wasn’t even getting the basic levels of support he qualified for.


In my experience, many people in the prison system have been assessed as having FASD, yet few are actively receiving the support—or the care—they need. Instead, disabled and mentally ill offenders are released into the community with little more than a shelter bed, the clothes on their back, and a list of conditions they are supposed to follow.


With the help of our advocacy program and his lawyer, I was able to get Luke started on his disability application. Luke needed much more support than he was getting and advocacy programs helped him get connected, but just a few months after working on his application, our entire advocacy program was cut. According to an internal memo dated February 1, Vancouver Coastal Health is planning on replacing several advocacy offices with a single social worker and a team of volunteers as a cost-cutting measure.

I feel these cuts will lead to even fewer people getting the help they need. I’m worried it will put even more pressure on advocacy programs already stretched thin.

Missing links

In B.C., the welfare system has been turned into a primarily Internet- and phone- based process, much to the frustration of the remaining advocacy organizations. For people like Luke, this system is particularly inaccessible, as he does not have easy access to a computer or a phone.

Justified as a necessary cost savings measure, this change has lead to the closure of several welfare offices and reduced hours and staffing at the remaining offices. Advocacy organizations report consistently long wait times and frequently interrupted phone calls with the Ministry of Social Development and Social Innovation.

For many low-income people, eviction is a relatively common occurrence and affordable housing in this system is often not kept to code. It is also a gendered and racialized issue; research has shown that low-income women of colour are more likely to face evictions than men. Cuts to advocacy as well as the systematic underfunding of and recent cuts to the RTB make it harder for people living in poverty to assert their civil rights.

 

And it isn’t just the welfare system that has become inaccessible to many low-income people. B.C.’s Residential Tenancy Branch (RTB) and small claims court have recently adopted a similarly inaccessible web- and phone-based model.

Taken together, these changes are pulling the bottom rungs of the ladder to justice out for low-income people.

Unnecessary suffering

For many low-income people, eviction is a relatively common occurrence and affordable housing in this system is often not kept to code. It is also a gendered and racialized issue; research has shown that low-income women of colour are more likely to face evictions than men. Cuts to advocacy as well as the systematic underfunding of and recent cuts to the RTB make it harder for people living in poverty to assert their civil rights.

Inadequate housing contributes to mental illness, but it seems politically easier to keep people stuck in a costly criminal justice cycle than to get serious about building housing and creating fair and responsive services.

Family law is another area where cuts to advocacy and legal aid programs create unnecessary suffering. In B.C., somewhere between 90 and 95 per cent of family litigants go unrepresented in provincial court.

This means that low-income families are simply not getting the legal help they need to deal with family break-up, child custody, and child support issues.

As a 2014 report by West Coast Legal Education and Access Fund shows, the near- total lack of legal-aid funding particularly impacts women and often leads to women trapped in abusive relationships.

In no uncertain terms, the report states, “for family law cases in particular, a lack of legal aid and affordable representation services means that British Columbians’ legal rights are routinely violated and ignored, with devastating impacts on women, children, families and communities.”

There are so many people making a heroic effort to support those in need, yet years of underfunding and neglect have demoralized and debilitated many of these programs. The only exception to the overall decline in support has been police budgets, which seem to grow more every year.


The fallout of a shrinking safety net

My office used to be almost twice its size, with two dedicated outreach workers who were famous for helping people get to court on time. We used to have a small budget for food vouchers and even the odd cigarette.


The ability to reach out to people and offer them even a small token of support helped build trust and ultimately leadto people working with us to get more organized and better resourced.


There are so many people making a heroic effort to support those in need, yet years of underfunding and neglect have demoralized and debilitated many of these programs. The only exception to the overall decline in support has been police budgets, which seem to grow more every year.

As the Vancouver Police Department itself has acknowledged in its reports on the mental health crisis, police are not well-suited to deal with mental illness, especially given that so much of Vancouver’s mental health “crisis” is caused by years of poverty, neglect and inadequate care.


To be clear, advocacy and legal representation are only a part of B.C.’s shrinking social safety net.


But it’s an important part that makes sure that other aspects are responsive, accountable, and fair.


It’s time to reframe our response to people in need as an issue of justice and equality, not as an issue that needs to be reined in with more policing and jail time.


Mental illness is a public healthissue with roots in our society’s ever widening inequality. From what I saw in my work, people who experience mental illness, homelessness, or addiction don’t need more police attention or prison time. They need decent housing and responsive supportive services.


But how will we know how to care for people in need if we never care to listen?

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  • commented 2016-05-27 11:06:31 -0700
    A story super beautiful, I think that you should write more cool stories like this! Watch the video of Lucas Trentino that talks about the product Goji Diet!

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AkJEcRm1_nU
  • followed this page 2015-07-22 13:21:50 -0700
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