A needle drop box sits outside the Sheldon Chumir supervised consumption site in Calgary.
Gavin Young / Postmedia
A listener recently recommended a documentary that everyone should see. It’s called Seattle is Dying and it shows in graphic, heart-wrenching detail what happens to a city when its drug and homeless problem gets out of control. Calgary can avoid this fate but it will require a dramatic investment in addiction treatment.I have always thought of Calgary’s homeless problem as being mostly a housing affordability problem. I remember volunteering at the Mustard Seed and meeting a client, let’s call him Mike, who was working poor. He was staying there to save up first and last month’s rent so he could move out on his own. I remember being told there were a large number of transient poor like Mike, who were on the street for a short time before moving on to something better.Seattle’s homeless problem is different altogether. It is the extreme example of what happens when well-meaning politicians take the notion of harm reduction a step too far.I understand why so many health workers support harm-reduction measures. I went along on a ride-along with a public health nurse once in Edmonton to drop off clean needles. We dropped off hundreds of needles. Many of the clients had apartments. They worked. You’d never know they were addicted to injection drugs. I expected a lecture to go along with each drop-off. But the nurse was very practical.When I asked about treatment options, she told me how woefully inadequate it was. Even if you could get in to an emergency bed, a difficult thing to do, there usually wasn’t a spot in a long-term program, so you’d be back out on your own. There weren’t ever enough beds to meet the demand. Many of the most successful programs are non-profit or private, and have limited capacity to take clients, or have large price tags.So if you are a nurse operating with these realities, you just come to the conclusion that at least clean needles kept people alive. As for safe consumption sites, if you can’t send people to treatment you can at least keep them from overdosing, right?When crime rates go up around the facility we hear excuses about why it can’t be properly policed. It will deter people from using the facility. Or it would do no good to bust vulnerable people for petty crimes. And so things slowly get worse.This is why Calgary is in danger of going down the same path as Seattle. In Seattle, the revolving door on nuisance crimes is so steady, the top offenders have racked up dozens of crimes each. Think how demoralizing that must be to the police service. Or the first responders administering naloxone every day — sometimes to the same people. If you add up the cost of policing, courts, EMS, hospital and other services for these high-needs addicted homeless, the cost to taxpayers is staggering.There is a better way. Years ago, then-Calgary police chief Rick Hansen proposed the idea of treatment jails, where if you were caught committing a crime to support an addiction — assault, robbery, break and enter, and so on — you’d serve your time in a secure facility and be treated for your addiction.They never did figure out how to do this effectively here, but fortunately they did figure it out in Rhode Island. I interviewed a group called CODAC that operates in jails. They give addicted inmates one of three different opioid-cessation pills while they are incarcerated. Inmates get access to counselling and job training. When they leave, CODAC continues the wraparound-services program and helps them get a place to live, a job and continues to provide pills at no charge. They have a 93-per-cent success rate.It’s time we stop looking at safe consumption sites as the answer. Keeping a person alive just to get their next fix is an embarrassing stop-gap measure for governments too cheap to pay for treatment. Programs like CODAC get people clean and gives them their lives back.The Alberta government must do the same. Otherwise Calgary Is Dying may be the next documentary we’re talking about.Danielle Smith is a radio host on 770-CHQR. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org