A proposal to create an indoor overdose-prevention site in a once run-down, now condo-tower-filled area of Vancouver’s downtown highlighted a stark divide in the city this week.
On one side, dozens of speakers say people who use drugs need the site like this, where people injecting would be monitored by peers, to stay safe and alive during an epidemic of overdose deaths that is killing more people than COVID-19.
On the other, many local condo residents in the rapidly changing Yaletown/Downtown South neighbourhood say there is already rampant crime on the streets because of problems with drug users who have been pushed or pulled into the area recently and that this problem will only get worse with a prevention site.
In the middle are 11 council members who have to make a high-stakes decision on whether to permit a short-term lease in a city-owned building to a Vancouver Coastal Health-funded organization that will run the site for at least a year.
Overdose-prevention sites in B.C. are defined as drug-consumption sites where the supervision is sometimes done by peers; they are allowed to operate by ministerial order, unlike facilities designated as supervised drug-use sites, which operate under a federal exemption and are staffed only by medical professionals.
One councillor asked at the lengthy meeting Tuesday whether there was anything that people could agree on.
“What would it take to bring the community together to consider solutions that would mitigate some of the issues?” asked Non-Partisan Association councillor Melissa De Genova. “Is this ’100-per-cent no' or maybe, ‘I’d need to think about it?’ What will it take to get away from us against them?”
No one appeared to have an answer.
Vancouver approved the continent’s first-ever supervised drug-use site in 2003, which is now complemented by a small site at the Dr. Peter Centre and a safe-consumption site at the Powell Street Gateway.
As well, B.C.'s health authorities are now running overdose-prevention sites in more than a dozen cities around the province, in an effort to lower the numbers of fentanyl-overdose deaths that have surged in recent years.
Vancouver Coastal is running three overdose-prevention sites in the area already, one in a mobile van on the street in front of the proposed location, one at St. Paul’s, partly in a parking lot, and one in a hotel the province acquired as housing for homeless people. The new site is projected to get about 50 to 70 visitors a day, significantly fewer than the more than 300 a day who go to the original site in the Downtown Eastside.
But the effort by Vancouver Coastal Health to establish that indoor site in Yaletown has turned into a lengthy battle.
Sarah Blyth has been a driver of the concept of overdose-prevention sites after starting one in a tent in a Downtown Eastside alley on her own.
“You can say ‘Let’s talk about the site and what would make it good,’ but to have this not go forward today would kill people," she said at Tuesday’s meeting.
Another speaker, Trey Helten, said that sites like the one being proposed would help people to make connections and help people change, as happened with him when he was a drug user.
On the other side were residents who said they feel threatened, unsafe and under siege in a neighbourhood they moved to believing it would be a good place for families.
“I support providing assistance to those who need it, but I’m opposing this without investment into other pillars necessary for success,” said Wilkins Chung, who worried the site would end up drawing people who use drugs in the park where his children play. “Your team needs to take a step back and acknowledge this is not a simple case of stigma and NIMBY-ism.”
Michael Geldert, representing a newly formed group called Safer Vancouver, said the community has been ignored when it comes to both the site and all the issues of increasing crime in the area.
A decision on the project has been deferred until next Wednesday.
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