People who use drugs and harm reduction advocates were celebrating as Vancouver’s first indoor overdose prevention site outside the Downtown Eastside was approved in a seven-to-four vote by city council Tuesday.
All four NPA councillors voted against the motion.
The site’s approval came the same day the province announced another 127 overdose deaths in September, bringing B.C.’s total number of deaths this year to 1,202. Vancouver has recorded 291 deaths, already surpassing the 2019 total of 247.
“One-hundred and twenty-seven people died in the province last month,” Karen Ward, a Downtown Eastside advocate who worked on the site proposal, said in an interview. “You can’t say, ‘It’s a crisis,’ and then say, ‘Well we’ve got to check with the neighbours,’ in the same sentence anymore.”
The site across from Emery Barnes Park at Seymour and Helmcken was met with fierce opposition from residents of Yaletown and Vancouver’s West End who said they feared it would worsen what they describe as rising crime and disorder.
The location’s proximity to the park and concerns about attracting people who sell drugs were brought up many times by housed residents at last week’s public hearing on the topic and by some councillors.
“I don’t feel the community feels heard,” said NPA Coun. Sarah Kirby-Yung, who voted against the motion Tuesday. “We need to do it in a way that brings people along.”
But the six councillors and Mayor Kennedy Stewart who voted to approve a lease with Vancouver Coastal Health signalled confidence that conditions attached to the agreement would ensure it operated safely for clients and neighbours.
OneCity Coun. Christine Boyle pointed out that many people who use drugs “feel their lives are being debated in this lease.”
"In terms of public safety, the safest option is to open this OPS," said Boyle. "This is a crisis and we can't afford to delay."
The lease conditions include requirements that Vancouver Coastal Health and RainCity Housing, which will operate the site, take responsibility for addressing issues like cleanup, noise and disorder.
Initially, the proposal sought council approval for a lease with RainCity that would provide space in the city-owned building at below-market rates.
But on Monday city staff proposed an amendment that would see Vancouver Coastal lease the site at market rates to increase accountability and “address public concerns around the site.”
The original proposal would have required the support of two-thirds of councillors, while the amended motion could be passed with a simple majority.
Kirby-Yung and fellow NPA Coun. Colleen Hardwick expressed frustration with what they said were “changing goalposts” for the motion, which would have been defeated based on the two-thirds requirement.
Ward said the last-minute change muddied the conversation but is glad “VCH stood up and said we’ll figure this out on our own,” and took the lead on making sure the site is a success.
The site represents the first major step to deliver indoor overdose prevention services outside the Downtown Eastside. Amendments to the initial motion appeared to pave the way for more indoor and mobile overdose prevention sites in other areas of the city where they’re needed.
A majority of Vancouver’s overdose emergency calls originate in the Downtown Eastside, but not far behind is the general downtown zone, where one in seven calls occur.
Ward said the site will provide needed supports.
“It’s going to mean that the people living in the alcoves of Granville Street alleys will be able to have a human conversation with someone for the first time in years,” she said. “It could mean everything to them.”
South Vancouver and Commercial Drive areas also have significant numbers of overdoses. Councillors asked city staff to work with Vancouver Coastal Health to identify more suitable spaces for mobile overdose prevention sites across the city.
Councillors also expressed concern about the lack of progress in providing safer supply to let people avoid toxic illicit drugs and urged staff and the health authority to provide safer supply of substances at the new site.
Ward said it’s heartening to see the overdose prevention site approved, but there are too few efforts to prevent people from needing to go there in the first place.
“We have got to be able not just to intervene, but just to give options. And that’s the problem in the DTES, people don’t see options,” she said.
And while opposition to the site was fierce, Ward hopes it will lead to deeper collaboration on improving safety for everyone in the neighbourhood.
“I hope people will think more critically about the ways that we imagine our communities.”