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Rights + Justice

An Overdose Prevention Worker Is Killed on Duty. His Colleagues Want Answers

Thomus Donaghy was devoted to harm reduction. He died after a violent altercation Monday.

Jen St. Denis 31 Jul

Jen St. Denis is The Tyee’s Downtown Eastside reporter. Find her on Twitter @JenStDen. This reporting beat is made possible by the Local Journalism Initiative.

Thomus Donaghy’s co-workers describe him as the calm backbone of their harm reduction work — someone who was always there to get you what you needed or “glow you up” when you were having a bad day.

They’re now struggling to understand how Donaghy, who had worked at overdose prevention sites for four years, became Vancouver’s ninth homicide victim of 2020.

And they’re shocked that Donaghy was killed while on duty at the overdose prevention site at St. Paul’s Hospital Monday night.

“He was very happy, easy going, a very happy-go-lucky guy,” said Carissa Sutherland, who had worked with Donaghy at overdose prevention sites for four years, including at the St. Paul’s site.

In a recent photo essay for The Tyee that celebrated frontline harm reduction workers, Donaghy poses in full PPE. He looks so proud, Sutherland said. “He loved what he did.”

Sutherland said she was still struggling to understand why and how Donaghy had died. Police say they responded to a 911 call around 8:30 p.m. Monday night reporting that a man had been found stabbed near Comox and Thurlow streets. He was taken to hospital and later died of his injuries. Police are continuing to investigate.

“Thomus, of all people — he was so caring,” Sutherland told The Tyee.

Vancouver’s overdose prevention sites were first started by community activists during the height of the city’s overdose crisis in the fall of 2016. At the sites, drug users consume drugs while workers or volunteers are present and can intervene with first aid if they overdose.

The sites have been heralded as a key lifesaving measure and have spread across Canada and the United States in response to a North America-wide tainted opioid epidemic.

But Donaghy’s death is now bringing to light long-running concerns about safety and working conditions for the people who work at the sites.

The overdose prevention site at St. Paul’s Hospital is operated by RainCity Housing. It has been closed since Monday, but with Vancouver in the grip of a sharp increase in fatal overdoses, RainCity is working to reopen the site.

The organization plans to increase staffing levels to three staff members instead of the normal two, and to relocate the site inside the hospital, said Catharine Hume, co-executive director of RainCity.

Hume confirmed that Donaghy was working a shift when he was killed but couldn’t provide any more information about what happened because of the police investigation.

In a statement sent Friday, Vancouver police said Donaghy had been working at the overdose prevention site when he went outside. He then got involved in a fistfight with a man who has yet to be identified. The altercation ended with the man stabbing Donaghy.

Police are asking for information from any witnesses who saw the altercation, or drivers who may have dash-cam video.

With security guards on site, the St. Paul’s OPS was known to be one of the safer and calmer sites, Sutherland said. But she said she was still too upset about Donaghy’s death to return to work.

Sutherland and Donaghy were both peer support workers, non-unionized workers who are paid less and have fewer protections than the unionized peer support specialists who work on-site.

“We’re not protected, we’re not under a union but we do frontline work — we do most of the work,” Sutherland said.

Nikita Volkova also worked with Donaghy at the Maple and Molson overdose prevention sites in the Downtown Eastside; those two sites are operated by PHS Community Services. Volkova described Donaghy as “the very best parts of harm reduction work.”

“Thomus kept me safe and he kept our clients safe,” Volkova said. “He would give you the shirt off his back.”

Volkova is grieving, but she’s also angry. She said misogynistic comments against her and other female co-workers are common, as are violent threats and assaults, and Donaghy would often step in to protect his co-workers from those comments and threats. She’d like to see OPS operators do more to keep workers safe.

PHS Community Services declined to comment for this story. Hume said the St. Paul’s OPS was known to be a calmer site, with extra security guards hired when it started two years ago.

Hume said RainCity has reported the incident to WorkSafeBC. Ivy Yuen, a media relations staffer with WorkSafeBC, said that in situations that involve criminality, the agency collaborates with police agencies to determine whether an occupational health and safety investigation is needed.

That investigation would determine what caused the incident and could make recommendations to prevent something similar from happening again, Yuen said.

Hume said that although she didn’t know Donaghy personally, the loss is being deeply felt throughout RainCity and the wider harm reduction community.

“Thomus was very connected in peer work in harm reduction and overdose prevention,” Hume said. “I know there are lots of people who are really impacted by the loss.”

*Story updated on July 31 at 9:45 a.m. to include further information about the incident from the Vancouver police.  [Tyee]

Read more: Health, Rights + Justice

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