Overdose-response advocate Sarah Blyth announces run for Vancouver city council

One of B.C.'s most vocal proponents for drug-policy reform says she wants to give first responders a voice at city hall

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      There might be no one in Vancouver who has played a more significant role in the city’s response to its drug crisis than Sarah Blyth.

      In September 2016, when she was helping manage a street market in the Downtown Eastside, Blyth became frustrated with the number of overdoses that were happening in an adjacent alley. She partnered with two women and together they established an illegal injection site. There, people who were previously using drugs in the alley could inject under a tent and in the presence of volunteers who would respond in the event of an overdose.

      Three months later, in December 2016, then-health minister Terry Lake announced that his government would establish more than 15 overdose-prevention sites across the province. This new category of harm-reduction service was inspired by the tent that Blyth and her partners had pitched in the alley, Lake openly acknowledged.

      Today Blyth’s overdose-prevention site near the intersection of Columbia Street and East Hastings has seen more than 140,000 visits, reversed hundreds of overdoses, and experienced zero deaths. Other sites established with the model she pioneered have similarly impressive track records.

      That work's going to continue, Blyth told the Straight, but, going forward, she hopes she'll have the added influence of a seat on Vancouver city council.

      “My priority will be affordable housing,” Blyth said in a telephone interview. “More housing for the homeless, more co-op housing, more modular housing, more housing in general. Because everybody I know is having trouble.

      “And I want to work on behalf of all the frontline workers down here [in the Downtown Eastside], including ambulance and fire,” she continued. “I understand what they’re all going through right on the front lines. All the city workers and frontline workers in the crisis and the folks who are in the middle of the crisis, I think I understand what they need. So they would have a voice on council really pushing for what needs to be done.”

      Blyth said she’s running as an independent and remains open to supporting any mayoral candidate who’s “progressive”.

      “I’d like to see a woman, and it seems like there are going to be a lot of great woman candidates,” she added. “But I’m going to wait and see who the people want.”

      Blyth said she will not be supporting anyone with the Non-Partisan Association (NPA), explaining, “The NPA is the last thing I want to see for Vancouver right now.”

      On Vision Vancouver, Blyth said she agrees with some of the party’s policies, especially concerning its response to the overdose crisis. “I like the stance that Mayor Gregor Robertson has taken on decriminalization,” Blyth said. But she stressed she felt it best to run without allegiance to any established party this year.

      Through the winter of 2016, Sarah Blyth helped lead the Downtown Eastside's response to the overdose epidemic when there was little support from government.
      Amanda Siebert

      Blyth previously served on the city’s park board. She held a seat with Vision Vancouver for two terms, from 2008 to 2014. The following year, Blyth tried for federal office with the NDP but lost in the party's primaries. She’s also worked for the nonprofit Portland Hotel Society as a manager of a homeless shelter and at various social-housing sites.

      During her time on the park board, Blyth focused on creating activities and spaces for young people and on ending cetacean captivity at the Vancouver Aquarium.

      News of Blyth’s intent to run for council was released this morning (April 19) in a public but quiet manner when she changed the brief biography that appears alongside her name on Twitter. It now reads: “Independent Council Candidate Vancouver 2018 don’t answer to anybody but the people.”

      Vancouver's next election for mayor, council, and park board is scheduled for October 2018.