New PHSCSS head Micheal Vonn says organization has a responsibility to expand access to safe supply

The former BCCLA policy director maintains that authorities can turn the tide on the fentanyl crisis by offering people addicted to street drugs a regulated alternative

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      Micheal Vonn likely has a challenging year ahead of her.

      The former policy director for the B.C. Civil Liberties Association (BCCLA) took over PHS Community Services Society (PHSCSS) last July, a position that has proven itself a difficult one in recent years.

      With 19 supportive-housing projects in Vancouver and another two in Victoria listed on its website, PHSCSS is one of the largest nonprofit government partners in the sector. And a steady increase in homelessness throughout southwestern B.C. has placed a strain on the organization and others like it.

      Meanwhile, B.C.’s opioid epidemic is killing hundreds of people every year. And because PHSCSS makes an effort to provide housing to injection-drug users who have been evicted from other buildings, the arrival of the dangerous synthetic-opioid fentanyl has placed an unprecedented burden on the organization’s staff.

      And then there are PHSCSS’s well-known internal problems.

      After more than 20 years leading the organization, its founders, Liz Evans and Mark Townsend, resigned in 2014. Since then, PHSCSS’s leadership team has remained in a state of constant flux. Vonn is the fifth executive director to attempt to hold the reins in the last five years. (A number of interim executive directors have also cycled through the position during the same period.)

      “Why did you take this job?” the Straight asked her.

      “Most people know me from my work for the BCCLA,” Vonn began in a telephone interview. “But I actually come from HIV. I started my advocacy work…in the midst of the AIDS crisis, back before there were new treatment options, when it was a public-health crisis of the most intense emergency. That’s where I came into advocacy. And so this public-health emergency that exists right now [the overdose crisis] speaks to me, very much.” (Before joining the BCCLA in 2003, Vonn worked for AIDS Vancouver.)

      Asked about her initial priorities for PHSCSS, Vonn mentions the opioid epidemic, but it’s not at the very top of her list.

      “The kinds of systems and structures that you need to support such a phenomenally complex entity, that’s really the focus right now,” Vonn told the Straight. “While the leadership turnover is well-known, what’s little-known is how much we’ve grown during all of that.

      “We’ve grown geographically—Victoria is a clear indication of that—we’ve grown in terms of the existing programs that we offer, and we’ve also innovated [with new programs],” she explained. “The challenge of leading an organization that has experienced this amount of hyper growth just can’t be underestimated.”

      In 2019, PHSCSS reported annual revenues of $46.4 million, of which $37.2 million (80 percent) came from government (the vast majority from B.C. Housing and Vancouver Coastal Health), according to Revenue Canada filings.

      Today, the organization employs 463 people full-time, plus another 226 part-time.

      These numbers do indicate significant growth.

      Just five years earlier, in 2014, PHSCSS total revenues stood at $27.1 million annually.

      That year, the organization employed 321 people full-time and 286 part-time.

      In November 2018, growing pains made headlines when CBC News reported that chronic payroll problems were causing employees financial hardship. In addition, since the onset of the overdose crisis in 2014, it’s become common to see PHSCSS employees complain on social media that resources are stretched thin and colleagues are experiencing burnout.

      PHS Community Services Society employees Andy Bond and Duncan Higgon explain the toll that B.C.'s opioid epidemic has taken on supportive-housing staff. Recorded in December 2016.
      Amanda Siebert

      On the opioid epidemic—which claimed 823 lives across B.C. during the first 10 months of 2019 and 1,542 the year before—Vonn said that she intends to see PHSCSS “pushing the envelope on safe supply”.

      Since September 2016, PHSCSS has quietly supplied certain tenants with hydromorphone, an opioid similar to heroin. The idea, pioneered by PHSCSS medical director Christy Sutherland, is to offer tenants who struggle with a long-term addiction a relatively safe alternative to unknown substances found on the street. The last time the Straight checked in on the initiative, in April 2019, Sutherland had 115 patients enrolled in the program and another 45 on a waitlist.

      Vonn said that PHSCSS has a “responsibility” to continue to expand access to prescription opioids, explaining that the organization’s tenants who are addicted should not have to inject unknown substances that often contain fentanyl.

      “We have suffered as a community, colossally,” Vonn said. “What we’ve managed to collate throughout that shitshow is a growing consensus that we are not going to police our way out of this crisis, and that we’re not going to treat our way out of this crisis. We have to secure safe supply. That consensus—that growing consensus—is the thing that is going to move the dial.”