A criminal defence lawyer from Vancouver is sounding the alarm as the province's 'extreme housing crisis' worsens — so much so that her recent clients declined bail to get 'three hots and a cot' in prison.
"I've had three clients this week asking to extend their time in custody," posted Melanie Begalka on X. "The extreme housing crisis, fear of dangerous drugs on the street and general lack of resources, it's all real."
Since her initial uproar, Begalka told the Vancouver is Awesome blog that two of her three clients — all men — remain in custody.
Neither sought bail, knowing it would prolong their access to regular meals and a safe place to sleep.
"It got to me that day," said Begalka, referring to her June 28 post on the province's housing crisis.
Though the litigator did not disclose details on her clients' alleged crimes, she said either bail or a guilty plea would put them on the street sooner.
They would tell Begalka to delay their sentencing until they could access suitable housing and treatment.
According to Blacklock's Reporter, focus groups in Metro Vancouver and the B.C. interior reacted "negatively" overall to the province's January 31 decriminalization of up to 2.5 grams of heroin, crack, cocaine, fentanyl, MDMA and meth.
Several groups contend the 2.5 gram limit is "far too high" for substances like fentanyl, with fatalities increasing year-over-year since 2020.
A total of 4,605 people died from accidental poisonings that year, with 6,310 deaths in 2021.
The B.C. Coroners Service (BCCS) recorded 2,272 overdose fatalities in 2022 — up tenfold from 272 fatal overdoses in 2001.
The BCCS also reported 184 deaths last June from illicit drugs — over 1,200 this year alone. In a year-over-year comparison, the death toll jumped 17% from last June and 2% higher than in May.
Overall, the province has suffered more overdose fatalities than combined deaths from homicides, suicides, accidents and natural diseases in recent years.
The phenomenon of alleged criminals extending their stay in jail is "not unusual" and has become more acute in recent years, according to Begalka.
"It's almost always people who are homeless, using drugs, and tired. [They] get three hot meals and a bed, and that's more than some people get anywhere else."
According to a 2020 Metro Vancouver homeless count report, 107 people struggling with homelessness testified they lacked housing, having recently served time in prison.
A 2016 study in the Canadian Journal of Public Health concluded that "homeless and vulnerable individuals reporting recent incarceration were less likely to be housed over a two-year follow-up period."
In response to Begalka’s anecdote, B.C. Housing Minister Ravi Kahlon conceded his government must improve resources for people transitioning to life outside prison.
"It doesn't surprise me given the crisis that we're in right now with the shortage and lack of housing we have available for people," he said.
Kahlon said provincial data coincide with the lived experiences of Begalka's clients — data, he said, that has informed the government's housing strategy.
"Our strategy is not only to build housing but also to look at these pathways and figure out how we intercept people when they come through the system so that we can get them into housing as opposed to that cycle continuing to repeat itself," he said.
Earlier this month, the B.C. government announced $97 million to fund the development of 143 low-to-moderate rentals, 25 supportive housing units and 80 shelter beds in the Downtown Eastside.
"We need more types of housing like this," he said. "Shelters are important, but we want to make sure that there is more stable housing because this is the type of housing we want to see people in."
"I wish there were an easy solution to this. There is no easy solution. Every solution is complex, and it takes time."