There was lots of discussion and idea sharing during round table discussions held over the course of Poverty Awareness Week recently in Chatham-Kent, and organizers hope to take that momentum and move forward.
Phillip Mock, Project Co-ordinator for CK Prosperity Roundtable at Family Services Kent, said the week began by highlighting what poverty is in our community and how we all have a role to play.
“We tend to look at the municipality, the province and the non-profit sector to deal with poverty-related issues and challenges, but really we all have a part to play. Every sector, every person in our community has a role to play,” Mock said.
A community conversation and forum also took place with 11 panelists from various organizations, including people who have experience with substance use and homelessness challenges who spoke as well, Mock said. It was filmed by YourTV and will be televised in the future he noted.
After the panelists spoke, they went out into the audience to break into small-group discussions.
“It was a great opportunity for service providers who were the panelists to go sit with members of the community from all walks of life who came out to be part of the conversation and listen. They entered into small round table discussions and a lot of really interesting information came out of those conversations,” Mock explained.
He said both sides said the discussion was much needed and they want more of that style of conversation, not only for the community to know what is happening but to know what “tangible, practical things can I, as anybody walking down the street, what can I do” to help.
“I think it is abundantly clear that everyone has a role to play. We had people from local businesses from downtown come out, we had people with living and lived experience come out, people accessing services and just general community members that were interested in the conversation and learning more,” Mock said of the feedback from the discussion.
Now that the organizers have heard the feedback, he said with the future conversations, they will be tailoring their focus on making sure people leave with tangible and practical recommendations for all sectors involved.
For instance, Mock said the idea of decriminalizing all substance use was brought up by Medical Officer of Health David Colby as a way to deal with the physical and mental health issues that are a part of addiction.
“We have to realize this is a physical and mental health issue and treat it as such. We have to treat it with respect and with compassion and we have to provide people with dignity. We do that by decriminalizing these activities and not trying to hinder services and funding providing because of the criminal factor that’s attached to substance use,” Mock noted.
When it came to homelessness, he said people talked about how we needed to work where people are at, getting away from the idea that if we just provide the treatment, that’s what they’re looking for and people will get better.
“We all know that with treatment, in all realms of challenges in our community, only works as far as the individual is actually ready to access that treatment. We shouldn’t have moralistic judgments about anybody who doesn’t want to seek treatment at this time,” Mock noted.
He added no one had answers as to how it would be funded. There was discussion on what they do with what the community has already and how do we make it better.
“It doesn’t necessarily mean we have to throw more money at it. Agencies should be communicating more with the community so they understand what is going on around us,” he added.
The huge stigma around homelessness and substance use was another big discussion at the tables and it was agreed it is important to let the community know what is going on with these vulnerable populations and not judging neighbours and community members.
“When it comes to homelessness and substance use, we tend to think of people who are not our neighbours; it’s really easy for us to “’other’ people, but when it comes to substance use, it crosses all classes, all genders, all ethnicities,” Mock noted.
A final piece that was discussed was harm reduction when it comes to substance use, but ultimately, he said prevention is the key.
With harm reduction, Mock said it falls on a spectrum with abstinence, such as with Alcoholics Anonymous, at one end. It can work for some people but not those who aren’t ready to fully quit, he noted. So cutting back, say from 15 drinks a day down to six drinks a day until you can reduce your intake all together is a way to meet people where they are at in their addiction.
“It’s about safety – if you are going to continue to use, then let’s make sure you do it safely,” Mock explained.
With prevention, why it is key is that while harm reduction works, it is seen by many as a band-aid solution because there are still people who may enter into substance use.
“If there is a way we can prevent them from even entering into addiction, we’re in a much better place, though it’s a much harder place to get to,” he noted.
Mock said it is noted that the police are doing an amazing job and the best they can, but they are not social workers. They do their best to link people they encounter to services in the community that can help them, but they have to approach the issue from a criminal perspective.
He said the issue of decriminalization is huge topic to address with the community but the idea is that instead of spending money on arresting and jailing drug users, publically funded supports can be used for individuals to use safely, with the government providing pharmaceutical-grade substitutions like the methadone program that users know is safe. He said it’s that harm reduction piece that will save money on health care because users won’t be ingesting products laced with fentanyl or car-fentanyl that cause serious harm.
“People then feel they are being supported where they are at, and don’t have to steal to access those drugs on the illicit market. That is part of the harm reduction and preventive measures,” Mock explained.
He said people are concerned with crime rates and service providers are trying work to work within the system we have now, but the system needs changes.
“We have services but we need a real wrap-around style of services. One; we don’t have enough services, but even with the ones we have, they are doing amazing work but we really need to have a wrap-around model involving the criminal justice system,” he noted.
Mock said he will be preparing a report for the community with all the information coming from the community forum and that should be ready in the next couple of weeks, as will the YourTV broadcast of the panel discussion.