A second unsanctioned supervised-injection site began operating in the Downtown Eastside today (November 18).
The facility—little more than a pair of tables under a tent—operates without government support and without exemptions from federal drug laws that sanctioned sites require to operate legally.
Its establishment in an alley off East Hastings Street near the intersection of Main Street comes two months after another unsanctioned site began distributing clean needles and other supplies for drug users in an alley near the intersection of East Hastings and Columbia Street.
Sarah Blyth is a former Vancouver parks commissioner who, along with long-time Downtown Eastside activist Ann Livingston, got both sites up and running. In a telephone interview, Blyth recounted how quickly the idea for a second site became a reality.
“It’s been the most horrible week that I can remember,” she said. “It’s been horrible. And welfare day is coming up [November 23]. So we figured the best thing we can do is put up another tent and, with our limited resources, do what we can.”
Blyth said she was chatting with employees of other nonprofits who work with drug users in the Downtown Eastside and one thing led to another.
“I said, ‘Come on, let’s go’,” she continued. “I got a bunch of us and we gathered supplies and rolled over there. And we’re prepared to set up other ones too, if it’s needed.”
So far this year, 622 British Columbians have died of an illicit-drug overdose. That’s up from 510 during all of 2015 and 350 the previous year. In 2016, the dangerous opioid fentanyl has been detected in about 60 percent of overdose cases.
The alley where the second site was established today is around the corner from Insite, Vancouver’s only low-barrier supervised-injection site that operates with government permission. It’s one of the busiest alleys in Vancouver, crowded with drug users who don’t want to wait in the line that can build inside Insite when there aren’t enough booths to meet demand. Drug users also congregate in this alley when they don’t want to enter Insite’s medical environment but still seek the relative safety that’s provided by the proximity of the health-care team stationed there.
Earlier this week, the Straight visited Blyth’s first unsanctioned tent, at 62 East Hastings Street. Thirty seconds hadn’t passed before an overdose occurred.
A member of the tent’s staff grabbed a dose of naloxone, a drug that’s used to reverse the effects of an opioid overdose. With a confidence that can only come from an action repeated many times, he injected the drug and likely saved the man’s life. Three minutes later, an ambulance wheeled up in response to the call that had been made to 911. The man who had overdosed had already returned to his feet and disappeared down the alley.
Since that first tent began allowing people to inject heroin and other drugs there on September 21, Blyth estimated that staff have dealt with overdoses between 100 and 150 times. They were successful in every case and no one has died at the tent.
Only a few hours after the second tent was pitched today, staff there had already used naloxone to resuscitate two people who had overdosed.
“We’re set up in the two busiest alleys in the city now,” Blyth said. “And we’re not listening to no government or anybody who tells us what to do. We’re listening to what’s happening on the street. The government isn’t doing anything. We’re doing it. And so we’re not going to be told what to do by then.”
Vancouver Coastal Health (VCH) has applied for federal permission to open two additional supervised-injection sites in the Downtown Eastside and has said it will file paperwork for three more after that. Those plans have been in the works for several years now.
Since a spike in overdose deaths across the province became statistically noticeable beginning in 2010, more than 2,300 British Columbians have died of illicit-drugs overdoses.
In a telephone interview, VCH spokesperson Gavin Wilson said the regional care provider could not condone the activists’ actions.
“We can’t fault their intentions of setting up more supervised-injection sites because we agree that there needs to be more,” he said. “That’s why we’re moving forward with the applications for three more supervised-injections services in the Downtown Eastside. And we’re hoping that those are approved very promptly.
“But while we can’t fault their intentions,” Wilson continued, “neither do we support or condone these sorts of services if they are functioning outside of the law.”