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A man who wished to be identified as Taylor sweeps up used needles outside the tent where he and his wife live on 135a Street in the Whalley neighbourhood of Surrey, B.C., on Nov. 1, 2016. (Darryl Dyck for The Globe and Mail)
A man who wished to be identified as Taylor sweeps up used needles outside the tent where he and his wife live on 135a Street in the Whalley neighbourhood of Surrey, B.C., on Nov. 1, 2016. (Darryl Dyck for The Globe and Mail)

Groups call for Surrey, B.C., to open supervised-injection sites Add to ...

Since moving into the homeless encampment on the Surrey street known as “the Strip” some 10 months ago, Taylor estimates he’s come across five dead bodies in the area – all victims of drug overdoses.

Taylor, who didn’t want to disclose his full name, is standing next to his tent, sweeping up discarded syringes, speaking with a reporter about the grim tally.

“How many did I find?” he asks his wife inside the tent. “I found more than you.”

“I think you found five,” his wife replies, unfazed. “And I think we found one together.”

More than 70 people have died of illicit-drug overdoses in Surrey so far this year, an increase mirroring the overdose crisis afflicting the entire province. Many of these deaths have occurred on the Strip, a quiet stretch of 136A Street between 106 and 108 Avenues where many of the city’s homeless have set up camp.

But the city has not adopted the type of aggressive harm reduction that can be found in nearby Vancouver, where two supervised-injection sites have operated for more than a decade and where local health officials plan to open five more.

Surrey, in contrast, doesn’t have a supervised-injection site or any plans to open one, and the city’s mayor has been reluctant to invite such services into her community.

On Tuesday, the Surrey chapter of ACORN, an advocacy organization of low- and moderate-income families, added its voice to those calling for the opening of a supervised-injection site in the Fraser Valley city.

“There have been instances of drug paraphernalia in playgrounds, in complexes,” said Anna Kowaleski, elected chair of ACORN North Surrey. “If we had a safe-injection site in Surrey, it would be safer for the community, it would be safer for the users and it would make sure that we as a community are taking care of each other.”

The group announced its backing of such a site at a small news conference outside the Chuck Bailey Recreation Centre. They stood on a small patch of grass next to the sidewalk; drug paraphernalia could be seen at their feet.

Ray Griffin, an ACORN member and father of three girls, said it is a common sight.

“You find a lot of needles in this park, all over the place,” he said. “It’s pretty bad that my three-year-old keeps asking me when we take her out, ‘What’s that on the ground?’ I shouldn’t have to tell my kids, in a family area, ‘Don’t touch that.’ That’s why we want a safe-injection site, so it’s brought inside.”

Mayor Linda Hepner opposed the idea of opening such a site earlier this year, but has since softened slightly to say it would have to be connected to a clinical facility that would offer treatment and recovery options as well.

In an interview on Tuesday, the mayor said she acknowledged the escalation of social problems on the Strip over the past year, but reiterated her belief that simply opening a supervised-injection site is not the answer.

“There is a whole continuum that needs to be looked at,” Ms. Hepner said. “I appreciate that we’re hearing, ‘Wouldn’t it be nice to have an injection place,’ but that is a singular element of a care program. We intend on having a continuum of care, of policy, in place that suits the city of Surrey.”

Shovita Padhi, medical health officer for Fraser Health, said the health authority identified Surrey as a city that would benefit from such a service. It is currently looking for existing service providers who would be interested in hosting a supervised-injection site but, to her knowledge, none has stepped forward to date.

“We know that supervised-consumption service is a best practice for a specific population of individuals who use substances,” Dr. Padhi said.

“We know it saves lives and it would definitely be beneficial. But it’s really important to recognize that the population who uses substances is extremely heterogeneous and we need to have a variety of services and options available to meet everyone’s needs. A supervised-consumption service isn’t going to be the magic bullet that is going to resolve this opioid epidemic that we’re experiencing.”

The health authority is aiming to start putting together the required application to open such a site in coming months, Dr. Padhi said.

She notes the health authority has expanded other harm-reduction measures, increasing the number of sites that drug users and pick up free take-home naloxone kits, for example.

Currently, injection-drug users in Surrey can pick up clean supplies at social service providers but are expected to inject elsewhere, which often ends up being on the street. Used needles that don’t make their way back to sharps containers are collected by contract crews, but many are often seen on the ground.

John McGilvery, who camps on the Strip, says he sees overdosed people on the street being revived with naloxone two or three times a day.

“It would be safer [to have a site], instead of people running around yelling [naloxone],” he said. “Seconds are important. If you have a safe injection site, they go down, [people who can help] know where they are.”

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