Vancouver is preparing to spend $3.5-million on a drug-overdose crisis with no end in sight, pouring money into a new medic unit, an additional community-policing station and training for staff to administer the anti-overdose medication naloxone.
The proposals, outlined in a report to council on Wednesday, will be funded through a special increase to property taxes that was first proposed last month. The city's plans, largely concentrated in the Downtown Eastside, are in addition to measures introduced by the provincial government since it declared a public-health emergency last year.
"As local government, we need to stand up for the immediate needs of our residents," said Mary Clare Zak, the director of the city's social-policy division. "We know what we have been doing is saving lives."
The staff report, which recommends immediately approving about $2-million in spending, will go to council next week for a vote. The extra 0.5-per-cent increase added to city taxes is projected to bring in $3.5-million this year.
The city's decision to jump in came as overdose cases and deaths mounted into the hundreds, overwhelming first responders.
The rate of overdose deaths is far worse than what Vancouver experienced in the 1990s, as a result of people taking drugs, sometimes unknowingly, that have been laced with the powerful opioids fentanyl and carfentanil.
The city had 215 fatal overdoses in 2016, according to statistics released by the province's coroner, roughly double the next-highest figure in Surrey.
Provincewide, 914 people died of illicit drug overdoses, marking the worst year in three decades of record keeping.
Vancouver's first round of spending will go to a new three-person medic unit, a community-policing station in Strathcona and staff training.
The city already spent $43,000 in December last year to open the medical unit in its Downtown Eastside firehall, which was needed because of the hundreds of extra calls related to overdoses that fire and rescue services handled last year. The staff report recommends funding the unit for the entire year.
City statistics show that calls about overdoses to Firehall 2, the one closest to the Downtown Eastside at Main and Powell streets, increased from 804 in 2015 to 2,211 in 2016. Firehall 1, in nearby Strathcona, had the same type of calls jump from 203 to 437.
The staff report recommends hiring three additional people for fire rescue so that the new medic unit isn't relying on existing staff to do overtime.
City planners are contemplating other measures, such as adding supervised drug-consumption sites inside some hotels in the Downtown Eastside that are home to the city's poorest residents.
"The vast majority of deaths are occurring inside," said Ms. Zak. "People need more support and safe-consumption sites inside could be a remedy. That's something we'd like to test and pilot."
The rate of overdoses rose so high last year that a group of volunteers in the Downtown Eastside started their own unsanctioned supervised-consumption tents in local alleys to prevent deaths.
That impromptu solution is now being used by the province in other cities hard-hit by overdoses, such as Surrey and Victoria, as the Health Ministry and health regions have scrambled to respond.
Ms. Zak said that, besides the option of supervised-consumption sites inside hotels, the city is also looking at ways to support the aboriginal population in the Downtown Eastside and at more education sessions on how to prevent a drug overdose.
The city helped put on a public-education session last year and would like to see more, Ms. Zak said.
Councillors from the dominant Vision Vancouver party and from the Green Party voted in support of the tax increase, while the three Non-Partisan Association councillors opposed it, saying city taxpayers shouldn't have to carry the load for health services.