Since November 2016, teams on bicycles have patrolled the Downtown Eastside, collecting used needles, teaching people how to use naloxone to reverse an opioid overdose, and responding to overdoses themselves.
The program, an initiative of the nonprofit Portland Hotel Society (PHS) called Spikes on Bikes, has performed so well that beginning this Friday (May 9), it’s expanding into Vancouver’s West End.
Christopher Van Veen is an urban health planner for Vancouver and city hall’s point person on the overdose crisis. In a telephone interview, he said that deaths attributed to illicit drugs remain at near-record levels.
“Every week, there a lot of overdose incidents and quite a few deaths in the downtown core,” Van Veen told the Straight. “Unlike the Downtown Eastside, where there are lots of good interventions—like the overdose-prevention sites and a pretty well networked population of peers in the streets who look out for each other—those living in the downtown core are a little bit more isolated and don’t have the same level of services available to them.”
He said that’s why Spikes on Bikes teams will be deployed to patrol the streets and alleys of the West End.
Delivering a more general update on the crisis, Van Veen said the number of fatal overdoses in Vancouver declined in January and February but then began to climb again. And even during the dip post-New Years, he added, deaths remained way above where they were a year ago.
“Catastrophically bad,” is how Van Veen described the situation today. “Much worse than in April, when the [provincial] crisis was declared. So we’re not out of the woods in any way.”
According to the latest stats from city hall, the Downtown Eastside produces a lot more 911 calls for overdoses compared to the city centre. However, a higher percentage of overdoses recorded in the city centre turn fatal.
From January 1 to April 30, there were 1,645 overdose calls from the Downtown Eastside, of which four percent ended in a death. During the same period, the city centre recorded 337 emergency calls for overdoses, of which eight percent involved in a death.
According to a May 4 city release, there have been 141 fatal overdoses in Vancouver so far this year. From 2001 to 2010, the annual average was 57 deaths.
Coco Culbertson, PHS head of housing, community, and peer development, told the Straight that West End bike patrols will focus initially on needle recovery, sweeping parks, areas surrounding schools, and similar public spaces. “And doing some community outreach to explain what we’re doing and why we’re there,” she added.
In the Downtown Eastside, Spikes on Bikes is staffed entirely by peers—the government’s term for past and present drug users. Culbertson said that has helped ensure the program is as accessible as possible. Its expansion into the West End will therefore involve hiring peers from that neighbourhood.
“We’ve been chatting with harm-reduction service providers in the West End, downtown, and the Granville South area, and we’re hoping to recruit people who are living and using in the West End,” she said.
For now, the teams will ride from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m., but hours may change in response to needs.
According to PHS, between November 18, 2016, when the first patrol went out, and the end of March, Spikes on Bikes teams trained 795 people to use naloxone, reversed 61 overdoses, and recovered more than 38,000 dirty needles from the streets of the Downtown Eastside.