For 80 years, the Union Gospel Mission has provided services in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, feeding people, providing shelter and helping them deal with addictions.
It has annual revenue of just over $22 million and assets of nearly $7 million. A couple of weeks ago, it served 2,500 people at its annual Christmas dinner.
It is one of the largest providers of supportive recovery housing for people with addictions.
For women, whose needs are greatly underserved, UGM has the eight-bed Lydia Home in Mission and 13 beds at The Sanctuary on Heatley Avenue in Vancouver.
For men, it has a purpose-built facility with 62 beds for addictions recovery, 72 shelter beds and 37 affordable housing units that opened in 2011.
The provincial government put up $12.1 million for the $29 million facility and the city waived $420,000 in development fees, which explains why former housing minister Rich Coleman and then-mayor Gregor Robertson were among the dignitaries attending.
Clearly, UGM is no fly-by-night organization.
But it’s a testament to the complexity and opacity of the B.C. government’s assisted living registry that UGM has found itself on a list on of 26 unregistered (a.k.a. illegal) facilities, which includes both supportive addictions recovery houses and seniors’ assisted living.
“We feel terrible and embarrassed about our mistake as we take regulatory compliance seriously,” programs director Dan Russell said in an email. “We believed our recovery programs did not require registration or licensing because we did not provide any prescribed services.”
When UGM learned that its recovery program “could be interpreted as a therapy program” under the Community Care and Assisted Living Act, Russell said it immediately contacted the Health Ministry, which sent inspectors on Oct. 10.
In their report posted on the ministry’s website, the inspectors listed two prescribed services that were being offered at all three houses as “psychosocial supports and medication administration.”
UGM was ordered to reduce the number of people receiving services to no more than two at each location, cease providing the services or immediately apply for registration.
UGM sprang into action, gathering documentation to meet all 30 requirements on the registration checklist. It was ready to submit the application on Nov. 20. But by then, the online application form had disappeared because of new regulations that came into effect Dec. 1.
It meant UGM (along with any others attempting to get off the bad list) had to gather more documentation to prove that it meets the new guidelines. UGM is still working on completing it, but it had hoped that its good intentions would have meant it would be taken off the list.
Among the many reasons that UGM is so eager to get off a list is that the list includes several very bad operators.
Those bad actors are the reason that after years of inaction, the province has finally taken some steps to strengthen regulations and enforcement to protect vulnerable addicts searching for help.
Vancouver Recovery Centre is one of those. Operated by Kyle Walker, four of its houses are on the unregistered list with complaints against them.
The Abbotsford News reported that neighbours of the one on Eagle Street in Abbotsford described it as a flophouse when they went to city council meeting in May to finally get it closed.It also reported that police had been called to the house 32 times between January 2017 and January 2019 for a sexual assault, a domestic dispute and threats and that residents were being charged $800 to live there.
The house was still operating despite orders from the city in April 2017 and the province in September 2018 to close.
For decades, the provincial government and municipalities have been playing whack-a-mole with scammers who promise addictions recovery services and provide only shelter.
Yet, even some government-registered recovery houses have critical failings — failings that have cost five people their lives in the past year.
Union Gospel Mission is not one of those and there are many registered and licensed houses operating to the highest standards.
Protecting them from guilt by association is why registration, licensing, regulation and enforcement are all crucial.
More importantly, a robust system and a credible registry are only ways that anyone — let alone desperate addicts and families — can determine whether a recovery house is safe or whether the best thing about it is a slick website.
Soon British Columbia will mark the fourth anniversary of a public health emergency caused by overdose deaths from a fentanyl-laced supply of illicit drugs.
The number of deaths dropped 30 per cent in the first half of 2019. But the number of times paramedics were called to deal with overdoses remains near its all-time high.
Addiction isn’t going away nor is the need for high-quality treatment and recovery services.