When Acting Victoria Police Chief Del Manak was approached by Island Health, asking for support to open a temporary overdose prevention site in the city, he knew it would be negligent if police didn’t listen to what health authorities had to say.
The province is in the midst of a health emergency as the death toll from illicit drug overdoses continues to rise. Manak knew something needed to be done to help stop people from unnecessarily dying.
“This is a health issue….When there’s unique challenges faced in a community, as a police department we have to be responsive to the needs and follow health, who are experts in our community,” said Manak, stressing the importance of a treatment component at the overdose prevention sites.
“We know that there’s drug use, we know we can do better than people shooting up in our alleys and parks and our streets. We want to make it safe for people, but we want to try, where we can, to offer people treatment, support, services that they long require instead of just an opportunity to go in and shoot up, only to come back later in a few hours and repeat the process.”
On Tuesday, Island Health announced it has submitted the first of three planned applications for supervised consumption services in Victoria. The second application is expected to be completed in a few weeks.
The first site is proposed for 941 Pandora Avenue, which is already owned by Island Health and delivers a range of public/mental health and substance use services, including outreach nursing and Assertive Community Treatment (ACT) teams.
The consumption area will include a separate access and exit doors, along with a space that will accommodate up to 10 consumption booths. Officials, however, anticipate it will be several more months before the centre will be able to offer the additional service.
In the meantime, emergency overdose prevention sites continue to operate at Our Place and 844 Johnson Street, where the bulk of tent city residents now live. A third location is set to open in Rock Bay sometime this month.
Located in the courtyard of Our Place, the overdose prevention site opened Dec. 20 and had 604 visits as of Tuesday morning. Some people come in to get drug supplies, said Our Place spokesperson Grant McKenzie, while others pick up naloxone — the antidote used in the event of an overdose.
So far there have been two overdoses in the small orange shipping container that has a paramedic standing by at all times, along with a peer support worker to provide education.
McKenzie is surprised by the high number of people already using the site since Our Place has never been a drug friendly facility.
Some users, however, continue to use drugs in the building’s washrooms, which has been an ongoing problem. November alone saw almost 20 overdoses that typically happen in the washroom facilities. Last week, there were a couple more.
“Our outreach staff have become the first responders and that’s really tough,” said McKenzie. “To me it’s (the overdose prevention site) lives saved and it’s crossing that bridge too. We’re having a lot more meaningful discussions now with the drug users that we didn’t have before…When they’re ready for that help or change, then hopefully they know they can trust us.”
As of Nov. 30, 755 people have died in B.C. from illicit drug overdoses. Of those deaths, 139 occurred within the Island Health region, including 60 deaths in Victoria alone.
In 2016, Island Health had a higher per capita rate of death from illicit drug overdoses than any other region in the province.