Spikes on Bikes


Canadian Cycling Magazine - - CONTENTS - By Tom Babin

ONE NIGHT A FEW MONTHS INTO HIS NEW JOB RID­ING A BIKE THROUGH VAN­COU­VER’S DOWN­TOWN EAST­SIDE look­ing for lives to save, Randy Pan­dora came upon a man sit­ting be­tween two Dump­sters. Most passersby wouldn’t have no­ticed, but here, in the midst of a na­tional opi­oid cri­sis, Pan­dora, who has worked for 15 years help­ing the home­less and drug-ad­dicted in this neigh­bour­hood, saw dan­ger. If the man was suf­fer­ing from a drug over­dose, he was mo­ments from fall­ing be­tween the Dump­sters where he would be in­vis­i­ble to the street as his breath­ing would slow un­til it stopped com­pletely. It would be a lonely death in a place where such deaths are heart­break­ingly com­mon. Pan­dora ped­alled di­rectly to the man and leaned in to in­ves­ti­gate. It was an over­dose. Pan­dora also re­al­ized the man was an old friend.

Pan­dora, a tall man with a hunch and a limp, re­counted this story while dressed in a dap­per newsboy cap as he walked with me down East Hast­ings Street, the no­to­ri­ous boule­vard in Van­cou­ver that has be­come syn­ony­mous with Canada’s cal­lous treat­ment of drug ad­dic­tion, and ground zero for the coun­try’s opi­oid cri­sis. As we walk, he nods at friends and ac­quain­tances pass­ing by.

Pan­dora, an artist who de­scribes him­self as an “oc­ca­sional drug user” and who speaks with a grav­elly world­li­ness borne of fa­mil­iar­ity with these streets, works with phs Com­mu­nity Ser­vices So­ci­ety on harm-re­duc­tion strate­gies, an ap­proach to treat­ing drug ad­dic­tion that fo­cuses on health rather than law en­force­ment. For years, this meant hand­ing out clean nee­dles and en­cour­ag­ing healthy lives. But when the opi­oid cri­sis hit Van­cou­ver – and every­body here has no doubt it’s a cri­sis – new needs arose. A lit­tle more than two years ago, the num­ber of over­doses on the streets grew. There were also more calls to re­move used nee­dles from streets and parks. Peo­ple in need of help were turn­ing up more of­ten in more places. To ad­dress these grow­ing prob­lems, phs needed a pro­gram that could get help into the com­mu­nity more quickly and nim­bly than its ex­ist­ing ser­vices. The re­sult was Spikes on Bikes.

The plan was to use bi­cy­cles to get aid work­ers into the com­mu­nity more quickly and deeply than is pos­si­ble in a mo­tor ve­hi­cle. But some­thing un­ex­pected hap­pened. The bi­cy­cle did more than just get help onto the streets more ef­fi­ciently. It opened up new av­enues to those in need, be­came a sym­bol of com­mu­nity and ac­cep­tance and, most im­por­tant, de­liv­ered pur­pose and fo­cus, not just to those re­ceiv­ing aid, but to those rid­ing the bikes, too. In a place where high-minded talk of hope tends to get worn down by the day-to-day re­al­i­ties of pain, trauma, over­doses and pol­i­tics, the bike has forged a path for­ward.

A few blocks east of tourists tak­ing self­ies in front of Van­cou­ver’s fa­mous steam clock, the rus­tic tourist trap­pings of Gas­town abruptly give way to the Down­town East­side. Here, down an al­ley of lit­ter and a damp smell of hu­man­ity, is a dis­pen­sary win­dow, where a lineup of peo­ple has formed at 9 a.m. on a Fri­day morn­ing to pick up clean nee­dles. I’m be­hind that win­dow, in the of­fice of phs, an or­ga­ni­za­tion that has been work­ing in this neigh­bor­hood for years to help its res­i­dents. It’s an or­ga­nized but packed space where floor-to­ceil­ing shelves hold boxes of med­i­cal sup­plies, and a bus­tle of ac­tiv­ity blends young so­cial work­ers from mid­dle-class neigh­bour­hoods with aged-be­fore-their-time res­i­dents of the street. It’s about as far from the im­age of Gas­town as you can get, a di­chotomy not lost on my host, Sarah Whid­den, who gave up a com­fort­able cor­po­rate gig at the nearby of­fice of Lu­l­ule­mon to work here.

The opi­oid cri­sis has in­fil­trated all parts of Cana­dian so­ci­ety. Over­dose deaths killed nearly 4,000 Cana­di­ans in 2017, ac­cord­ing to Canada's chief pub­lic health of­fi­cer Dr. Theresa Tam, in her an­nual re­port on the state of pub­lic health. “This is the most sig­nif­i­cant pub­lic-health cri­sis that we’ve seen for many decades,” Tam told cbc News.

But this neigh­bour­hood re­mains – stub­bornly, prob­a­bly un­fairly – the im­age of the cri­sis for many Cana­di­ans. The area is also at the fore­front of harm re­duc­tion in Canada, the place where the coun­try's first safe-in­jec­tion site opened, and the neigh­bour­hood where phs op­er­ates with a sim­ple fo­cus: keep peo­ple alive.

Part of what makes pro­grams here work, Whid­den says, is peo­ple like Pan­dora. phs of­ten em­ploys “peers” to ex­e­cute its harm-re­duc­tion strate­gies, mean­ing peo­ple who aren’t far from the street them­selves – for­mer and re­cov­er­ing drug ad­dicts, the home­less and oth­ers with con­nec­tions to this neigh­bour­hood. “There are a lot of peo­ple hurt­ing down here,” Pan­dora says. “We do what we can.”

As such, it was the peers who were among those who felt the first waves of North Amer­ica’s opi­oid cri­sis. Ac­cord­ing to statis­tics from the BC Emer­gency Health Ser­vice, Van­cou­ver emer­gency ser­vices was called for an av­er­age of 49 over­dose calls per month in the Down­town East­side in early 2016. By Novem­ber of that year, it had reached 262. That num­ber has fallen slightly from that peak, but re­mains high.

In the midst of this, phs work­ers re­al­ized they needed a way to move through­out the neigh­bour­hood quickly to com­plete the mun­dane tasks of harm re­duc­tion, such as clean­ing up nee­dle sites, ed­u­cat­ing res­i­dents and hand­ing out kits of life­sav­ing nalox­one to those who too of­ten see

their co­horts dy­ing. Into this process came a ma­chine that was al­ready on its way to be­com­ing a sym­bol of the city: the bi­cy­cle. Driven by a bike-friendly mayor and a flurry of new bike lanes, Van­cou­ver was in the midst of a bike boom that saw the bi­cy­cle driv­ing it­self i nto the con­scious­ness of the city and, more prac­ti­cally, show­ing that get­ting around on two wheels was faster, eas­ier and cheaper than other trans­porta­tion modes, which didn’t go un­no­ticed over at phs.

In late 2016, work­ers got a hand­ful of re­fur­bished workhorse bikes, then in­stalled bas­kets and racks loaded with pam­phlets, clean nee­dles and la­tex gloves. Af­ter peers got a few hours of train­ing in safe cy­cling and the rules of the road, Spikes on Bikes was off.

Pan­dora was among t he fi rst group of work­ers on bikes un­der the Spikes on Bikes pro­gram. He quickly re­al­ized the pro­gram was ca­pa­ble of more than just re­spond­ing to dirty-nee­dle com­plaints. On a bike, he was able to cover more ground and meet more peo­ple, dis­tribut­ing in­for­ma­tion about free meals, shel­ters, safe-in­jec­tion sites and healthy habits. There are more di­rect ben­e­fits to the pro­gram, as well.

Spikes on Bikes sees pairs of cy­clists run­ning five shifts a day, cov­er­ing large swaths of the com­mu­nity. At the end of each shift the peers tally up the re­sults – the num­ber of peo­ple they con­tact, the num­ber of nee­dles they picked up, the num­ber of times they call 911. Also on the list is the a col­umn la­belled “OD Re­sponded,” mean­ing the num­ber of times they aided

Randy Pan­dora

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