There is a drug-overdose crisis in our community

I attended a memorial service at Our Place recently for a man who I had come to know for far too brief a time. 

The outpouring of love, affection and sadness over his passing would come as a surprise only to those who didn’t know him. Because, while he was part of the family at Our Place, to the outside world he was labelled something far different.

Having lived on the streets, this imposing but gentle man wore his share of demons, the deadliest of which is addiction.

He died too young, and sadly he’s not alone.

There is a drug-overdose crisis in our community that is claiming far too many lives, and its impact rains down like hammer blows.

Death is contagious for it follows sorrow and pain as loyally as a dog follows its master. Most of the people who suffer from addiction use drugs to mask a litany of trauma and abuse in their lives. When that trauma is compounded by the loss of a friend or loved one, it becomes easier to be more reckless with their own lives.

With training, skill and compassion, our staff is saving lives every day. This isn’t the job they originally envisioned for themselves, but this is the reality we are faced with due to the arrival of fentanyl, a drug that is 10,000 times stronger than morphine. Not only have our staff members become first responders, but they are responding to people in distress with whom they often have a close relationship.

It is heartbreaking to lose a member of your family, and at Our Place, everyone is family.

This year, we pledge to fight back. We can’t stand by and watch people die, that’s simply not who we are. Working in co-operation with Island Health, our first step was to open an Overdose Prevention Site in the courtyard of our facility at 919 Pandora Avenue.

In its first few weeks of operation, the converted cargo container is already making a difference. With a full-time paramedic on site, we can respond to an opioid overdose immediately and save that person’s life. But beyond this essential medical service, we are also experiencing more open dialogue with a population that tends to shut itself away from our community’s angry glare, from the people who look at addiction as criminal rather than a health issue.

Our Place isn’t blameless in this either. In order to maintain a sanctuary for all people experiencing homelessness, we don’t allow drug use inside our facility. This means that people caught injecting drugs in our washrooms are asked to leave the premises. Repeat offences can also lead to a ban. Unfortunately, this policy shifts the problem to the streets and the parks, to the doorways and parking lots. It also means that when people need help with their addiction, Our Place isn’t always seen as a place they can turn to.

But our temporary Overdose Prevention Site is changing that. We still don’t allow drug use inside our building, but by opening a POD (Place of Dignity) in response to this overdose crisis, our outreach workers are having meaningful dialogue with this incredibly vulnerable and stigmatized population.

I wish I could tell you that the work we are doing is a perfect answer to addiction, but it’s not. It’s an emergency response to a health crisis. The burden of real and substantive change needs to rest on broader shoulders than a local charity.

However, every discussion and every life saved from overdose is another opportunity for change, another chance to reach out a helping hand and transform a life.

If we simply turned our backs, what would that say about us?

I, personally, want to thank each and every one of you for your prayers and support as Our Place continues its task of keeping people safe and offering a sanctuary free of judgment and scorn.

We couldn’t be the welcoming place we strive to be without you.

Don Evans
Executive Director,
Our Place Society