A key component of the Downtown Eastside’s response to the fentanyl crisis is moving to a new home next week.
Since September 2016, Vancouver’s first overdose-prevention site—a bare-bones facility where people use drugs under staff supervision—has operated under temporary structures at the back of an empty lot on East Hastings Street. For its first three months, it ran without government approval and consisted of nothing more than a tent. Then, in December 2016, the organizers, the Overdose Prevention Society, began receiving government funding and moved into a trailer that was donated by a private developer.
Now the overdose-prevention site at 62 East Hastings is moving into the building next door, at 58 East Hastings.
“We’re outside, we’re freezing, and I’m thinking it would be great to go inside, but we’d have to find a space. And then I looked next door and was like, ‘Oh, there’s an empty building,' ” one of the site’s cofounders and managers, Sarah Blyth, told the Straight.
“It’s definitely an upgrade,” she said via phone. “You see our volunteers out there now in the cold with frozen hands. So there’ll be some improvements. Maybe a place where people can relax after they’ve had an overdose that’s not outside in the cold or in a little trailer that’s packed with people.”
The building they are moving into is owned by B.C. Housing. The relocation is happening with the help of the City of Vancouver and the operation’s financial backer, Vancouver Coastal Health.
“Our goal was to do this for Christmas,” Blyth said. “I’m impressed that everybody was able to meet our deadlines and make this happen in a month.”
Another supervised-injection facility, Insite, has operated in the area since 2003. But the overdose-prevention site at 62 East Hastings attracted drug users in significant numbers because it came with a couple of key features that Insite lacks. The overdose-prevention site faces into an alley, which some drug users appreciate for the extra privacy offered there. It also includes a space where people can smoke drugs, usually crack cocaine, under the same sort of supervision that Insite offers only for intravenous-drug users.
Crucially, Blyth said, the new location will retain both of those features. A back door will let users come and go from the same alley. And next door, at 62 East Hastings, people will continue to be allowed to smoke drugs in the same tented area where they have for the last year.
“Like with everything, there’s going to be a little period of adjustment,” Blyth said.
According to a Vancouver Coastal Health bulletin, the facility, called the Trailer Overdose Prevention Site (TOPS), saw more than 105,000 visits from drug users from December 23, 2016, to December 10, 2017. During that period, staff recorded reversing 295 overdoses. No one has died at the site.
This year, B.C. is on track for more than 1,400 illicit-drug overdose deaths. That’s up from 985 in 2016, 519 in 2015, and 369 the year before that. The synthetic opioid fentanyl has been associated with more than 80 percent of deaths this year.