It’s a crisis Bruce Wallace hoped he wouldn’t be caught in again.
In the early ‘90s, Victoria, along with the rest of the province, was going through an overdose crisis, specifically with heroin, also called China White.
“I’ve seen how devastating an overdose crisis can be and how fast the harms can really go,” said Wallace, who was a social worker in downtown Victoria during the crisis. “Way too many people died…and now we’re right here in the same spot.”
Now, Wallace, a collaborating scientist with the Centre for Addictions Research of B.C. and assistant professor with the University of Victoria, said the city is experiencing a similar crisis again.
According to a new report called Every Washroom, de facto consumption sites in the epicentre of an overdose public health emergency, washrooms, specifically in health and social services agencies and shelters in Victoria, are becoming de facto sites for drug consumption.
Over a roughly six-month period, drug consumption in local agency washrooms has doubled to 58 per cent from 28 per cent in 2015.
Wallace, who co-authored the report, said the overdose epidemic can be attributed to three factors: high rates of homelessness in Victoria, incomplete harm reduction services, where people have access to supplies, but no place to inject them; and the introduction of fentanyl.
“It’s that combination which we found is really creating significant stress on some of the social service agencies and how they’re the epicentre of this crisis in Victoria, specifically shelters and harm reduction agencies that are distributing these harm reduction supplies,” Wallace said.
In the report, which includes information from focus groups with shelter residents, and shelter and harm reduction staff, participants said they used agency washrooms over other locations because they are more safe, private and more accessible.
“It’s safer, there’s people around if something bad happens …staff are there if problems occur,” said one person in the report.
However, with more people using washrooms to inject drugs, it’s having an impact on agency staff, who are now forced to check washrooms daily for potential overdoses and administer naloxone when necessary.
In April, the provincial health officer declared drug-related overdoses to be a public health emergency. Between 2011 and 2015, there were an average of 19 illicit drug-related deaths per year in Victoria. That number increased in 2016, with 29 illicit drug-related deaths in the first six months.
In the past, there was a needle exchange service on Cormorant Street, but it was shut down in 2008 due to community complaints. Since then, Wallace said the region has lacked a “very significant service,” and created a model in which people get harm reduction supplies from secondary distribution sites such as AIDS Vancouver Island or the CoolAid Society, but have no place to inject their drugs.
The report renews calls for the implementation of overdose response strategies including continuing to support and expand the use of naloxone, on the spot drug testing to detect fentanyl, and creating a supervised consumption site.
Alex Holtom, a steering committee member with YES2SCS, a group advocating for a safe injection site in Victoria, said people injecting drugs in bathrooms, alleys or abandoned stairwells has become the norm.
“It’s because you have so many people who are criminalized and stigmatized for their drug use that they end up having to use in unsafe, isolated places,” she said, adding the use of washrooms to inject drugs has increased over the past six to eight months.
“With supervised consumption sites you’re seeing the person right there, you’re seeing what their reaction to the use is, you’re getting to monitor them from start to finish and the after affects, and being able to connect them to other services.”