Vancouver’s first overdose prevention site started out as a tent in a Downtown Eastside alley. Just before Christmas in 2016, a construction company donated a trailer so that staff had somewhere to warm up. A year later, the Overdose Prevention Society moved inside to a storefront next door.
Now the site is moving again to a location just across the street at 360 Columbia St., because BC Housing plans to tear down the building they’re currently located in and build new housing.
Sarah Blyth, a co-founder of the Overdose Prevention Society, said she’s thrilled about the new renovated space on the ground floor of the Hotel Irving at Columbia and East Hastings. She expects the new site to be up and running by Jan. 1.
The OPS’s outdoor site, which operates in a vacant lot next door to its current location at 58 E. Hastings, will remain until an alternative outdoor space can be found. The location of that outdoor space is important because many people use drugs in that alley, and it’s one of the few sites to offer overdose prevention services for people who smoke their drugs.
Data from the BC Coroners Service shows that by 2019, 40 per cent of people who died of toxic drugs had smoked the substance, compared to 24 per cent who injected and 19 per cent who snorted drugs.
“If they don’t find us another place, then I’m sure anyone who is in charge would realize that people will die,” Blyth said. “And I want to be pretty serious about that.”
The move is coming in the midst of a terrible year for overdose deaths in British Columbia. With borders closed because of COVID-19, the illicit drug supply has become more toxic than ever.
With an average of 140 deaths in the first 11 months of 2020, B.C. is on track to record 1,688 deaths from toxic drugs by the end of this year. The trend is a reverse of what happened in 2019, when drug poisoning deaths fell for the first time in four years.
The Overdose Prevention Society started during the fall of 2016, with just a tent and volunteers who could administer first aid and naloxone — an overdose reversal drug — if clients overdosed. The service it offered was technically illegal, but with deaths mounting the B.C. government quickly got on board to support the model.
Two supervised injection sites had already been operating in Vancouver since the early 2000s, but the process to open new sites was onerous, with operators required to jump through many bureaucratic hoops.
The OPS showed how more sites could be opened quickly to meet demand as using drugs became more dangerous across Canada.
Standing in the bright L-shaped space at 360 Columbia, Blyth said 2020 has been difficult. The overdoses that staff were seeing were more complicated because of the addition of benzodiazepines, a type of drug that often puts people into deep unconsciousness and can’t be counteracted with naloxone.
Drugs are often contaminated with both benzos and fentanyl, Blyth said.
“The overdose doesn’t just end with Narcan,” Blyth said, using the brand name for naloxone. “They’ll be completely comatose with the benzos. That adds caretaking for folks throughout the day.”
Policies put in place to restrict the spread of COVID-19 have also reduced the number of shelter spots and drop-in spaces for people who are unhoused or precariously housed.
The overdose prevention site, which stayed open to offer life-saving services, has filled in some of the gaps. That includes distributing food, helping people find housing, and giving out tents, blankets and sleeping bags.
The new space is also filled with work from the many artists who make their home in the Downtown Eastside — from city scenes by Ken Foster to graffiti art by Smokey D and BOY, to landscapes by Stephen Saulnier (check out the Facebook page Downtown Eastside Artists Collective to find out more).
Blyth says overdose prevention sites can act as a gateway to get people connected to health and housing services, and there should be more of them.
The B.C. government promised funding to open more overdose prevention sites in August, but few new sites are open four months later.
Vancouver Coastal Health says a new site in Squamish is scheduled to open early in 2021, while several existing sites have expanded, including offering inhalation services at some sites. A new site planned for 1101 Seymour St. will replace a site at St. Paul’s Hospital.
Blyth called overdose prevention sites “the frontlines to the people who are using drugs.”
“People feel safe when they come in — it’s a great way to start the first bond with people to earn their trust, when they haven’t had a lot of trust in the systems,” Blyth said.
“You can meet people where they’re at, and then you can connect them with services. We get people housing, we get people food, we get people clothing. If you get safe supply [prescription drugs to replace illicit drugs] and you start ramping it up, these places can turn into safe supply centres... or help people get into rehabilitation.”