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This article was published 3/8/2018 (734 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
On July 23, the Winnipeg Free Press ran an article titled "City, province in the grips of a meth crisis, officials warn," which portrays an oversimplified correlation between the increase in crime rates and meth use. Meth is widely acknowledged as a rapidly growing problem in our city. However, efforts to address increasing crime rates will fail if we focus only on the prevalence of meth and responding to addiction, rather than on the root causes of substance use.
The portrayal of this issue in articles such as these catastrophizes a very complex situation. It not only creates a climate of fear but also criminalizes drug users, attaches stigma and further colonizes and excludes our most vulnerable populations.
For example, the article reveals that the number of property crimes such as "break-ins" and "home invasions" has increased and directly links this to rising meth use and the need to fuel addiction. The situation is more complex. People on the street will tell you they use meth to stay warm and stay awake so they do not have to sleep on concrete. They often break into buildings so they have a safe place to sleep and use. They would benefit from better access to safe and affordable housing and 24-hour safe spaces in addition to addictions-related programming.
When headlines focus on the connection between crime and addiction, we risk missing that addiction takes many forms and is often tied to experiences of poverty, colonization, trauma, isolation, mental illness, and systemic discrimination. Exclusion from education, employment, income security and an extensive social support network can cause or further exacerbate addiction. To combat break-ins, home invasions, other crime and substance use, we must tackle these root causes.
What can be done? Make Poverty History Manitoba has called on all levels of government to produce comprehensive plans outlining the actions they will take to reduce poverty. The federal government’s strategy is expected to be released very soon. The Manitoba government is working on a strategy that is now over a year late, according to provincial legislation.
The City of Winnipeg is the only level of government that has not yet committed to creating a poverty-reduction plan, despite repeated citizen calls. City council’s recent support for the Main Street Project shelter expansion initiative is an important response, but it also must fit within a larger poverty-reduction strategy.
Poverty-reduction advocates have spoken with people experiencing poverty and those who work most closely with them to suggest concrete actions that governments can include in their poverty-reduction plans. They call for action in areas such as income, employment, education, housing, transportation, recreation, policing and safety, food security, child care, health and mental health.
It’s not news that simultaneous actions in each of these areas are needed in order to have a real impact on poverty, but competing for political and fiscal pressures often make it difficult for governments to make the required commitments and investments.
The actions outlined in Make Poverty History Manitoba’s community-led poverty-reduction plans address the root causes of addiction and crime. They call for the province to create a livable basic needs benefit that would provide enhanced income security for people living in poverty. Specific recommendations related to mental health and addictions include an increase in provincial mental health spending by 40 per cent over three years.
Priority should be given to funding community-based mental health services and other services that improve access for people living with low incomes, particularly Indigenous Peoples who disproportionately experience poverty, and the impacts of intergenerational trauma.
Make Poverty History Manitoba agrees with Mayor Brian Bowman that we must work together to solve the root causes of crime. City council recently adopted a motion tasking the public service with having to develop recommendations for reducing poverty.
We hope this will lead to a comprehensive city-led poverty-reduction plan that includes training for first responders (including police, paramedics and firefighters) and city program/facility staff in mental health first aid, addictions, de-stigmatization, trauma-informed care, and anti-oppressive health promotion practices. This would help provide city staff with the knowledge and resources they need to refer people to appropriate health care, mental health care and addictions services as needed.
While some refer to a meth crisis in the city of Winnipeg, advocates and those with lived experience will tell you that we are actually facing a poverty crisis. Increased crime and meth usage are part of a very complex system that requires strong leadership for comprehensive public policy and prevention strategies.
It’s not time for an increased climate of fear, but instead a climate of solutions that tackle root causes based in empathy, decolonization and reducing stigma.
Michael Barkman and Lorie English sit on the steering committee of Make Poverty History Manitoba.
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