Portland Hotel Society manager Coco Culbertson wants a seat on council to prevent overdose deaths

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      Just about every candidate in Vancouver's already crowded race for city council is focusing on one topic: housing. But one aspiring politician who just entered the ring this week says there is an issue that's even more pressing than the city's affordability crisis. Coco Culbertson wants to talk about Vancouver's epidemic of drug-overdose deaths.

      "Vancouver and the province and the country are facing down an unprecedented loss of life due to the overdose crisis," she told the Straight. "Four people a day are still dying in this province. The numbers have plateaued and are not moving regardless of all our harm-reduction initiatives."

      There were 365 illicit-drug overdose deaths in the city of Vancouver in 2017 and 1,449 across the province.

      "People are still dying in their homes, isolated, all over Vancouver," Culbertson said in a telephone interview. "We need to do better."

      Culbertson is competing for one of four positions that Vision Vancouver will soon fill to complete its slate of candidates for city council. The nomination meeting is scheduled for July 8.

      There are eight candidates competing for the four openings. In addition to Culbertson, they include Diego Cardona, a young advocate for refugees and immigrants who made a failed run for council in an October 2017 byelection; Catherine Evans, a parks board commission; and Wei Qiao Zhang, who's worked as an assistant to a member of parliament.

      Culbertson has been on the front lines of Vancouver's overdose crisis since its very beginning. She works in the Downtown Eastside as senior manager of programs for the nonprofit Portland Hotel Society. In November 2016, for example, Culbertson established an alley patrol program called Spikes on Bikes that sees past and present drug users ride bicycles around the Downtown Eastside providing overdose-response training and distributing harm-reduction supplies like clean needles and naloxone. More recently, she helped bring previously unsanctioned overdose-prevention sites under the Portland's control and moved them into PHS buildings. Culbertson also worked with PHS staff at the organization's supportive-housing sites to integrate overdose-prevention services into those buildings.

      She said she wants to take those experiences and what she's learned working in the Downtown Eastside through the overdose epidemic to city council to help Vancouver and Canada take their next steps in responding to the crisis.

      "I really think Vancouver has a leadership role to play, not unlike with the overdose epidemic and HIV/AIDS epidemic in the '90s," Culbertson explained. "Vancouver was an agent of change and led both the province and the country in accepting harm reduction as a practice, and the outcome changed lives forever. I feel that, once again, the city can be that agent of change for everyone that has been affected by the opioid crisis."

      The Portland Hotel Society's Coco Culbertson (left) helped create teams of bicyclists equipped with the overdose-reversing drug naloxone to help prevent deaths.
      Travis Lupick

      In addition to the overdose epidemic, Culbertson emphasized that affordable housing will also rank among her priorities should she receive the nomination from Vision and subsequently win a council seat in the election scheduled for October. Also, she said she would work to create affordable spaces for artists in Vancouver and fight the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion project and other pipelines that could affect the Lower Mainland's environment.

      Today Vision Vancouver holds five of 10 council seats plus the mayor's chair. But only one of those six politicians is running for re-election. That's Heather Deal.

      "This is an opportunity for change," Culbertson said in response to concerns the governing party has run out of steam. "This is an opportunity for us to re-envision Vision."

      Vancouver's next election for mayor, city council, park board, and school board is scheduled for October 20, 2018.