Forensic psychiatrist calls for universal basic income in response to transit violence in Canada

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A rise in violence on Toronto’s transit system signals an urgent need to better support people struggling with homelessness, mental illness and addiction, says a forensic psychiatrist with the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH).

“It’s that combination that is giving rise to this (violence),” said Dr. Sandy Simpson, chair in forensic psychiatry at CAMH and the University of Toronto,

“It’s really impossible to know how much each of those things is to blame. But it’s not a single issue,” he said.

More information is needed about the suspects accused in recent attacks against Toronto Transit Commission (TTC) passengers and employees to make that determination, he said.

But Simpson said drug addiction is likely a factor in some cases, especially crystal meth and crack. Unlike opioids, those drugs can be associated with violent acts.

Lack of social support for people who are living in poverty and who are homeless, as well as poor access to mental-health services for the people who need it most, are also big underlying problems that need to be addressed, Simpson said.

“Frankly, my top solution would be universal basic income,” he said.

“That would make a dramatic difference to the struggles that desperate people get into,” Simpson said.

Mental illness, drug use a factor

People “are sleeping on the TTC because there’s nowhere else to sleep and becoming intoxicated or irritable or in conflict with other people on the TTC because they have nowhere else to go and they’re feeling that the world is structured against them,” he said.

Untreated mental illness, drug use or both can confuse vulnerable people and make them perceive others as a threat, Simpson said.

Right now, the wait time for people in Toronto with serious mental illness to be treated by an Assertive Community Treatment (ACT) team is 10 to 12 months, he said.

Gord Tanner, general manager of shelter, support and housing for the City of Toronto, said more outreach workers are being hired to offer services to homeless people identified at certain TTC stations in the city.

Six employees wearing red winter coats bearing a Streets to Homes logo on the front and Outreach on the back are currently approaching people on trains, buses and streetcars to help them access a shelter bed, other housing or services such as applying for income support and identification, he said.

A feeling of hopelessness

Plans are underway to employ a total of 20 people by May to provide services 24 hours an day, seven days a week from funding in the city’s current budget, Tanner said.

“There’s been a couple of stations where we’ve seen people bedding down, and that is Union Station and Spadina Station, but there’s parts of the system that have had more people visibly sheltering over the course of the winter,” he said.

“Folks are just having a very hard time making ends meet and so access to income supports and to affordable housing is probably something we hear most often from individuals we work with throughout the shelter system and folks who might be on the street or using the transit system,” Tanner said.

“It’s a feeling of hopelessness that the staff relay to me with respect to the folks that they’re working with.”

Tanner said that since Jan. 1, outreach workers have connected and referred 226 people to shelters from various parts of the transit system but that long-term housing is needed.

“It’s not meant to be a panacea or the solution to the tragic incidents,” he said of the project.

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