Janet Charlie faced an impossible tragedy last year that exemplifies how B.C.’s fentanyl crisis places an especially heavy burden on low-income earners.
Last August, her son Tyler died of a fentanyl overdose. It was less than two years since another son had succumbed to alcohol poisoning. And so Charlie found herself unable to pay for the two boys' funeral arrangements.
“Losing two sons in two years is hard,” Charlie told the Straight in an interview last December. “I’m saving up for headstones for both my sons. And I’m paying each month out of my welfare cheque. Trying to pay for headstones for both of them.”
The First Nations grandmother runs the concession stand at the Downtown Eastside Street Market, which operates at 62 East Hastings Street Monday to Friday and at 501 Powell Street on Sundays. Interviewed there again this month, Charlie said that after reading the article in the Georgia Straight, somebody—she didn’t know who—came forward with a $3,000 donation that has allowed her to buy the headstones for which she was saving.
“It’s wonderful what they did,” Charlie said. “There’s going to be a memorial now, and I’ll be inviting them.”
The donation was facilitated by Sarah Blyth, a former Vancouver parks commissioner who manages the market where Charlie works. From there, the Straight traced the donation to a prominent member of Vancouver’s skateboard community who wishes to remain anonymous.
In a telephone interview, the donor said many skateboarders feel an affinity for the Downtown Eastside on account of shared experiences of marginalization. As an example, the benefactor pointed to the SBC indoor skateboard ramp near East Hastings and Columbia streets, which is one of the few hangouts for young people in the neighbourhood. (The donor has no affiliation with that facility.) And so, they told the Straight, the donation was simply a way of giving back to a member of the community in need.
“She’s been through a bunch of crap and I thought that would be a way to help her have some peace."
In a separate interview, Blyth told the Straight that it was partly the death of Charlie’s son that inspired her and other activists to establish an unsanctioned supervised-injection site last September. She said that after three months running that facility on small donations, the injection site is now funded by Vancouver Coastal Health and has organizational support from the Portland Hotel Society. It receives about $8,400 each month as part of the provincial government’s response to the fentanyl crisis.
“We’re happy with how things are going but there is always extra stuff we need,” she said.
Blyth explained that the facility—described by the government as an overdose-prevention site—is now sanctioned by the regional health authority and receiving government support. But it is mostly staffed by peers—past or present drug users—who are paid below minimum wage.
“There are things like volunteer-appreciation stuff that we plan on doing and extra food and things like that,” Blyth said. “Our volunteers are people from the Downtown Eastside and we’re only able to give them an honorarium, so it’s nice to top it up with some food.”
The overdose-prevention site stands at the back 62 East Hastings Street and sees roughly 100 visits each day.
It is projected that illicit drugs will kill more than 800 people in British Columbia in 2016. That compares to 510 last year and 370 in 2014. About 60 percent of deaths this year have been linked to the dangerous synthetic opioid fentanyl.