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Drugs have taken a heavy toll in an Ontario city where rising rents and toxic drugs are making times tough for the most vulnerable. The Globe went downtown to see how people are coping

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Paramedics in downtown Oshawa help a woman, identified by her friends as Sabrina, as she lay on the sidewalk steps away from where another woman was treated for a drug overdose with Narcan.Photography by Melissa Tait/The Globe and Mail

At about 6:30 p.m. one recent evening a man rushed through the door of Convenience Plus, a cluttered downtown corner store. “Have you got Narcan?” he asked. The cashier handed him a rectangular red-and-white kit. The man dashed out the door again.

Narcan is a brand name for naloxone, a drug that reverses overdoses by blocking the effects of opioid drugs on the brain. A squirt in the nostril from a plastic dispenser can bring victims back from the brink of death in minutes.

Drug overdoses have become sadly common in this historic automaking hub just east of Toronto – so common that some locals have taken to calling the ambulances that race to the scene “fenty buses,” after the slang for fentanyl, the potent synthetic opioid that has flooded the city.

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Convenience Plus is a small store that has become a regular stop for the Oshawa's most vulnerable residents. A sign on the door warns people not to use drugs on the premises.

Convenience Plus is right in the thick of it. The little store at the corner of John and Simcoe streets is a popular pit stop for those suffering from homelessness, addictions and mental illness.

Pulling handfuls of coins from their pockets, they buy cigarettes, jerky, butter tarts, cans of pop and cups of coffee from the machine by the window.

Many pause inside the store to warm up and chat with owner Nicole Teelucksingh, who calls everyone “honey” and often lets hard-up customers pay later.

Until the man charged through the door, it had been a routine day at Convenience Plus. Customers arrived in a steady stream, many of them bearing the weather-beaten look that comes from life on the street.

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Ron Alton, 71, and Adriana Grecu, 50, came in to buy some maple walnut ice cream to help get them through the night. They weren’t sure where they would bed down, but thought they might end up at a local drop-in centre that has chairs to doze in.

Daniel Renaud, 31, hung out with his girlfriend, Amber Kellas, 24, who lives above the store with her two small children. After a five-year stretch behind bars for drug and firearms offences, he was staying in a halfway house across the street and hoping to find work, if anyone would take him.

Another regular, who preferred to be known only by his street name, Stoner, came to get pepperoni sticks for his frisky support dog Snowball, who gobbled them out of his hand. He bought two cartons of chocolate milk for himself and drained one on the spot.

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Daniel Renaud and Amber Kellas embrace at Convenience Plus, where owner Nicole Teelucksingh stands behind the counter.

Ron Alton and Adriana Grecu came to Convenience Plus for ice cream. They were not sure where they would sleep this evening.

For those who pass through Convenience Plus, life seems to be getting harder and more dangerous all the time. Oshawa is a thriving community of 170,000 that is enjoying a building boom and attracting thousands of students to its well-equipped colleges and universities. But it has a stubborn poverty problem in its downtown, where its neediest residents roam from shelter to soup kitchen to clinic, some of them sleeping outdoors on even the coldest nights.

As in other Canadian cities, rents have soared, forcing many of them out of the shabby apartments or single rooms that are their refuge. Not everyone is comfortable staying in one of the city’s busy shelters, so some exist on the street, huddling in doorways and trekking from place to place. Bylaw officers and security guards shift them away from their usual haunts, like Memorial Park right opposite the store. City workers recently installed an anti-loitering device under a bridge down the block. It emits piercing beeps to keep the homeless from sheltering there.

And the overdoses keep coming. Opioids deaths have soared since the pandemic started. By the first half of last year, say federal officials, about 20 people a day were dying in Canada. They say the pandemic changed the illegal-drug supply, left drug users cut off from some of their usual supports and led to increased rates of substance use. In 2021, 130 people died from opioids in Oshawa’s Durham region, seven times the figure in 2013. Preliminary figures show 64 deaths from January to October, 2022, though that could grow when final numbers come in. Just in the past few months, two well-known downtown locals perished: Lucky, as he was known, at the age of 43, and Dennis at 44.

Local authorities and charities have responded to the crisis by posting outreach workers downtown, improving access to addiction medicine and handing out lots of Narcan kits. Convenience Plus keeps a dozen or so behind the counter, just in case. The cashier knew exactly where they were when the panicked man rushed through the door that night.

By the time he’d grabbed the kit and ran across the street to Memorial Park, his girlfriend was in a bad way. A middle-aged woman in a headband and green coat, she sat on a park bench, her head rolling limply backward. The man sprayed a shot of Narcan up her nose.

At first, she didn’t respond. Her eyes had a blank, nobody-there look. Her skin was unnaturally pale, her lips blue, her breathing shallow. The man looked into her face and pleaded, “Can you hear me, Lisa?” Gradually, as the naloxone kicked in, she began coming to, her wide eyes absorbing the scene around her. The man lifted her to her feet, then laid her on her side in the cold grass to wait for the paramedics that had been sent by a 911 dispatcher. They came in minutes and took her to the ambulance.

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Simcoe Street is reflected in the Convenience Plus windows.

But the night was not over yet. Only steps away, a figure lay prone on the sidewalk. Another woman was down. A group of her friends huddled around her. They said her name was Sabrina. A paramedic who had just finished helping Lisa came over and crouched beside her, asking her whether she had taken fentanyl and telling her to stay awake. She was alert enough not to need naloxone, but the paramedic persuaded her to come to the hospital to get checked. A second ambulance came, and she was lifted onto a stretcher and whisked away.

Her friends said she must have dropped suddenly. They didn’t even know it was Sabrina until they came over and saw her face. Some bad drugs were going around, they said.

One of the friends, a thin young man, was clearly under the influence, hunched over and stumbling from a fall earlier in the day. A second, his eyes bright, told the others he saw a giant white dog across the street – but it was only the glow of a streetlight.

After chatting for a while about the night’s events, the friends went their separate ways. Across the street, the neon “open” sign in the window of Convenience Plus shone in the night.

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Down the street from one opioid overdose, friends and paramedics help another woman who was found lying on the sidewalk after a second suspected in downtown Oshawa. One paramedic responding to the first overdose assisted the woman, before the second ambulance arrived. Both were taken to hospital alert.Melissa Tait/The Globe and Mail

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