Authorities have brought an unsanctioned supervised-injection site that’s operated in the Downtown Eastside under the umbrella of Vancouver’s formal health-care system.
Since September 21, Sarah Blyth and other activists have offered harm-reduction services under a tent pitched facing an alley near the intersection of East Hastings and Columbia streets. There, they’ve provided clean needles and other equipment to intravenous drug users and kept the location staffed with volunteers trained to use naloxone, the so called overdose antidote that’s used to block the effects of opioids like heroin and fentanyl.
More than 300 overdoses occurred at the tent before staff stopped counting. Blyth and her volunteers successfully intervened in every one. No one has died at the tent since it was pitched more than three months ago now. All the while, the program survived on mostly small donations collected via a GoFundme campaign.
Authorities refused to provide the unsanctioned program with financial support. In a November 18 interview with the Straight, Gavin Wilson, a spokesperson for Vancouver Coastal Health (VCH), 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. “But while we can’t fault their intentions, neither do we support or condone these sorts of services if they are functioning outside of the law.”
That changed on December 23, when VCH told Blyth that it would supply the group with harm-reduction supplies and money to pay a manager and staff to operate the site 12 hours a day, seven days a week. Now, a December 30 news release has made the news official.
“We’re grateful for a warm, dry place, both for our volunteers and clients,” Blyth said quoted in VCH’s media release. “One of our goals is to prevent people from using drugs alone, because using alone can lead to dying alone.”
In 2016 it's projected the overdose epidemic will kill more than 800 people in British Columbia. That’s up from 510 last year and 370 dead in 2014.
Also on December 23, Blyth’s tent was replaced with a sturdy trailer that was donated by EllisDon Construction and Boxx Modular Canada.
The site will be managed by Ann Livingston, a long-time Downtown Eastside activist who was instrumental in establishing Vancouver’s first sanctioned injection facility, Insite, which opened in 2003.
VCH counts the trailer, which is located on a city-owned lot at 62 East Hastings Street, as the fifth “overdose-prevention site” it has opened to drug users in the City of Vancouver since B.C. health minister Terry Lake unveiled a host of new measures to combat the fentanyl crisis on December 8.
Since then, the province's five regional health authorities have opened more than 15 overdose-prevention sites in cities across B.C.
They differ from Insite in that they lack the complementary services that the supervised-injection facility offers. Overdose-prevention sites operate in different ways, depending on the city hosting them and organization running them. For example, Vancouver’s new overdose-prevention site at 528 Powell Street is staffed by registered nurses. Meanwhile, other locations are operating with staff who are trained in overdose response but who did not receive an actual postsecondary education in health care.
Regarding inspiration for the plan, Lake gave partial credit to Blyth’s tent.
“I woke up yesterday at 4 o’clock in the morning and was thinking about the pop-up tent,” he told the Straight earlier this month. “And the real challenge that we see is the cold weather. People have a combination of overdosing and hypothermia, so I know we had to do more. So we pulled the team together quickly; Vancouver Coastal had some plans in place. And so we just expedited everything.”
“The goal here is to keep people alive,” he added.