Not waiting for government, activists offer unsanctioned services for drug users in the Downtown Eastside

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      This morning (September 21) at city hall, Vancouver’s top doctor spoke before council with an update on the government’s response to an overdose-drug epidemic that has killed hundreds of people.

      Two new supervised-injection sites are expected to open in the Downtown Eastside as soon as early-2017, said Dr. Patricia Daly, chief medical health officer for Vancouver Coastal Health.

      At the very same moment, a pair of community organizers were opening an unsanctioned site for intravenous drug users in a back alley near the intersection of East Hastings Street and Columbia.

      “It’s a harm reduction, outreach, and overdose-prevention tent,” said Sarah Blyth, who was there running the site alongside Ann Livingston.

      “It’s an area where people can come to get harm reduction supplies and where they can come if there’s an overdose,” Blyth continued. “We’ve got Narcan here.”

      Both activists were previously involved in setting up an unsanctioned site in Surrey that offered similar services for a brief period last month.

      According to data supplied by Vancouver Coastal Health, 85 percent of heroin mixtures (and 80 percent of all drugs) checked at Insite between July 7 and September 8 (332 checks) tested positive for fentanyl. Blyth said that with so much of the city's drug supply contaminated, there was an unprecedented need to make harm-reduction supplies more easily available.

      In the back alley, a semi-circle of clean tables and chairs stood beneath a small tent. Supplies for using intravenous drugs were neatly on display. They included packaged syringes, rubber bands, and alcohol swabs. There was also a smaller number of naloxone shots on site. Naloxone, which goes by the brand name Narcan, is a drug that can be safely injected into a person experiencing a drug overdose to reverse the effects of opioids such as heroin and fentanyl.

      Blyth is a former Vancouver parks commissioner who works with the Downtown Eastside Street Market Society, a nonprofit that receives funding from the City of Vancouver. She stressed that she’s helping run the harm-reduction tent independent of any organization.

      Livingston is a long-time community activist who was at the centre of the Downtown Eastside’s struggle for harm-reduction services back in the 1990s. She was instrumental in the establishment of Insite, North America’s first supervised-injection facility, which opened at 139 East Hastings Street in 2003 and continues to operate there today.

      Blyth noted that on the day the Straight stopped by—the tent’s second day of operation—it coincided with when the province issues welfare checks across British Columbia. Each month on that day and the days following, researchers at the University of British Columbia have recorded a higher incidence rate of drug overdoses in the Downtown Eastside. Blyth explained that establishing the harm-reduction site was aimed at meeting that challenge.

      “There’s a need,” she said. “This alley is one of the two busiest alleys for people using drugs in Vancouver. There are a lot of people out here. And we hear people screaming, ‘We need Narcan’, so we figured this month, we would be prepared to help.”

      A tent pitched in a back alley in the Downtown Eastside off Columbia Street offers clean needles and other tools that people can use to inject drugs.
      Travis Lupick

      Reacting to news that the city had just announced that two new supervised-injection sites could open in the Downtown Eastside early next year, Blyth said the tent she stood beneath was needed to meet an immediate demand.

      “That’s good, but we’re dealing with right now and today,” she emphasized. “When we have enough sites, that will be great. But within the last 24 hours, our staff had to deal with two overdoses.”

      The establishment of the harm-reduction tent as well as the city’s plans to expand access to supervised-injection services are both largely in response to a sharp increase in the number of drug-overdose deaths observed across B.C.

      Before 2015, the all-time high for illicit drug-overdose deaths in B.C. was set in 1998, when there were 400. In 2015, there were 494 fatal overdoses in the province. During the first eight months of 2016, there were 488, according to the B.C. Coroners Service. So far this year, fentanyl has been detected in about 60 percent of those deaths, up from 30 percent in 2015.

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