It might take a while before illicit drug users start going to one of the first overdose prevention sites in the city, but those working with the drug community are already breathing a sigh of relief.
In response to the increasing number of overdose-related deaths, the province is setting up overdose prevention sites at overdose hot spots in Vancouver and Victoria.
The first two overdose prevention sites opened last week in Vancouver and another two locations are set to open this week in Victoria — one at Our Place and another at the housing facility on Johnson Street, where the bulk of tent city residents now live. The Pandora location will be for the public while the Johnson Street facility will cater to building residents only.
Officials at Our Place have been pushing for a site like this for a long time due to the dramatic increase in overdoses this year.
According to Our Place spokesperson Grant McKenzie, staff have responded to about 40 overdoses throughout the course of the year and had three overdose deaths at its shelters. November alone saw almost 20 overdoses that typically happen in the washroom facilities.
“We really want our washrooms going back to being washrooms and we also want to cut down on the stress on our staff,” said McKenzie, who would like to see a permanent site open, but knows that will still take a while.
“Our staff have become first responders, which was never a large part of the job before, but now every time they go into the washroom there’s a sense of trepidation — what am I going to find?”
The temporary site at Our Place will include a heated tent in the courtyard and will be open from 6:30 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. It will also have a paramedic on hand at all times, along with a peer support worker.
In order to earn the trust of illicit drug users, Our Place has teamed up with SOLID — an organization composed of current and former illicit drug users who provide support, education and advocacy to the city’s drug community.
Jack Phillips, an outreach worker with SOLID, is a former heroin addict who stopped using about three-and-a-half years ago when he realized the drug included fentanyl — something he said changed his high and didn’t help ease his suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.
Even with more fentanyl showing up on city streets, Phillips doesn’t believe it will deter addicts from using, but having a safe site to do so is something that’s been a long time coming.
“I think that it will break down a lot of the barriers that exist and the stigmas,” said Phillips.
“When you’re in an addictive state, it’s not because it’s a weekend party went wrong. It’s because you’ve been raped, beaten or had malicious things done to you many times in your life and this is your coping mechanism. From personal experience, you’d be shocked to find out what somebody would do to make sure they are okay.”
The sites are a temporary solution while the province’s health authorities wait for Health Canada to approve permanent supervised consumption sites that will include supervision services integrated with other health and social services such as mental health, substance use, referrals and peer support.
Additional sites are set to open later this month in Surrey, Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside and the Rock Bay area in Victoria. Staff at the sites will be equipped with naloxone and trained to respond to overdoses.
In April, the province’s health officer declared drug-related overdoses a public health emergency, sparking the distribution of naloxone kits to first responders. Between Jan. 1 and Oct. 31, there were 622 illicit drug overdose deaths in B.C. compared to 508 in the province the previous year. Fentanyl was detected in about 60 per cent of those deaths.
Overdose numbers for November are anticipated to be 50 per cent higher than any other month.