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Rosemarie Brill in Vancouver's DTES October 13, 2016 after the Vancouver Coastal Health expands women’s services in the Downtown Eastside. (John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail)
Rosemarie Brill in Vancouver's DTES October 13, 2016 after the Vancouver Coastal Health expands women’s services in the Downtown Eastside. (John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail)

Women-only supervised injection site to open in Vancouver Add to ...

Katherine Bellegarde had just nodded off when she was sexually assaulted. It was six years ago. She was alone.

Ms. Bellegarde, a drug user, had fallen asleep in the “chill room” of Insite, Vancouver’s public supervised-injection site.

“I was up for days and needed sleep,” she recalled in an interview outside the facility this week. “I went to the chill, I went to sleep. I only had a basketball shirt on. That’s how he was able to – I woke up to that.”

She ran outside and cried. For several weeks after, she injected in back alleys.

What happened to Ms. Bellegarde at Insite is exceedingly rare. But, like her, a small segment of women – for whatever reason – do not feel fully comfortable using the co-ed facility.

For them, Vancouver Coastal Health is planning a women-only supervised injection site in the Downtown Eastside.

Bonnie Wilson, a director at the health authority, which formally announced the facility on Thursday, said the percentage of women using Insite matches the percentage of female injection drug users in the area.

“Saying that, what we feel is that if there’s even one woman, two women, a handful of women who don’t feel safe using that supervised injection site because it is mixed-gender, then we are not providing them the service that they need and that they want.”

Ms. Bellegarde said the facility would give women peace of mind. Mary Schoening, who also uses Insite, said it would be ideal for women who are in abusive or otherwise intimidating relationships.

Insite became North America’s first government-sanctioned supervised-injection site when it opened in 2003, and a similar service at the Dr. Peter Centre – which has operated since 2002 – received official approval earlier this year.

The local health authority, faced with a growing overdoses crisis, is preparing to ask Health Canada for permission to open another five supervised-consumption sites, including the women-only facility announced on Thursday. Several other Canadian cities, including Toronto and Montreal, are considering following Vancouver’s lead.

Women make up about 40 per cent of Downtown Eastside residents and 27 per cent of clients at Insite.

The women’s site is still in the early planning process. Ms. Wilson said the health authority will begin reaching out to community partners next week to identify a possible location; it would then have to go through a lengthy application process to get federal approval from Health Canada.

There is no estimate of when the site would actually open.

Outside Insite on Thursday, reactions to the announcement were generally positive. Syreeta Dixon praised Insite staff for keeping an eye on clients and calling police on those who break the rules, but noted “they can’t watch everybody at once.”

Ms. Dixon said she has fallen asleep at Insite and woken to find some of her personal belongings missing.

“Men are the ones to do it, most of the time,” she said.

A few women, including Rosemarie Brill, did not feel the need for a supervised-injection site for women, but supported it in principle so long as it does not divert resources from men who need them as well.

“I don’t see the point,” she said. “If you’re going to open up another site, it should be open for everybody.”

Vancouver Coastal Health has already announced proposed locations for two of the five new supervised injection sites it is planning: 528 Powell St., which will soon become a mental-health and addictions drop-in centre, and 330 Heatley St., the yet-to-be-opened Heatley Integrated Health Centre.The remaining two are planned for an acute-care facility and a community health centre.

British Columbia is in the grip of an overdose crisis. It is estimated that about 700 people will die of illicit drug overdoses this year – a toll that would surpass every other year in three decades of record-keeping. Men account for 79 per cent of this year’s deaths so far.

Also on Thursday, the health authority announced plans to create an outreach team with nurses, clinicians and a peer support worker to deliver services – medical exams, screenings, harm-reduction supplies – to vulnerable women where they are.

The team will have a specially equipped mobile services van that Ms. Wilson likened to a general practitioner’s office on wheels. The van is expected to be operational by spring.

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