In the rain last Saturday afternoon (November 27), a young First Nations man lay unconscious in a Downtown Eastside alley.
The lower half of his body remained inside a tent that volunteers had pitched as an unsanctioned supervised-injection site. It’s one of two locations they’ve made available to drug users in response to the fentanyl crisis and an unprecedented number of drug-overdose deaths. The upper half of the man’s body had fallen outside of the tent and lay in a puddle as the rain continued to fall.
“We gave the man four shots of naloxone, mouth-to-mouth, and [chest] compressions, and he came back,” recounted Laura Shaver, president of the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users (VANDU) who was working in the alley with one of the organization's overdose response teams.
“Then the police officer walks up,” she continued. “I’m standing up, trying to get dry, catch my breath. And he starts interrogating me. Like, ‘Where do you live? What’s your name?...The guy is still on the ground, in the water, waiting for the ambulance. But the only police officer on-site is over here harassing me.”
The first of two tents now operating seven days a week was pitched at 62 East Hastings on September 21. Since then, the group’s lead organizer, Sarah Blyth, estimates that they’ve used naloxone to reverse more than 200 overdoses that otherwise could have turned fatal.
They’re operating outside the law, but the Vancouver Police Department (VPD) is allowing the tents to function as supervised-injection sites and has not arrested anybody who has brought illegal drugs there.
But the November 27 incident that Shaver described prompted Blyth to request a meeting with the VPD in the hope of ensuring that their tacit alliance holds.
Interviewed shortly after that meeting, Blyth told the Straight she sympathized with the VPD.
“It was just a stressful situation,” she explained. “They didn’t see that the person [Shaver] was a volunteer. They hadn’t called 911. So he [the officer] didn’t know what the situation was.”
Blyth described the situation that frontline responders are dealing with as “completely unprecedented”.
“In the past, you have one death or you have one overdose, and that is so traumatic that a frontline worker would just go home,” she said. “But now, it’s back to back to back, all day long.…So it’s very overwhelming for everybody, including police officers.”
In the first 10 months of this year, 622 people died of an illicit-drug overdose in B.C. That’s up from 510 in all of 2015 and 370 the previous year. The dangerous synthetic opioid fentanyl has been detected in about 60 percent of 2016 deaths.
In a phone interview, VPD spokesperson Randy Fincham said police will not shut down the tents, as they are considered a matter for the health-care system and not an issue for law enforcement.
“We haven’t been interfering with those tents in the Downtown Eastside,” he said. “Obviously, we do know they are there and we are monitoring them. But any decision as to whether they belong or where they don’t, we would leave that up to health officials.”