HEALTH Task force calls for more action
major report on Vancouver’s overdose epidemic states that five years into the crisis, there is no end in sight. “Despite concerted efforts by government and community partners,” the report begins, “Vancouver continues to be severely impacted by the convergence of a long-standing mental health and addictions crisis and increasingly potent and toxic drug supply.”
The city’s rate of overdose deaths stands at 58 per 100,000 people. That’s high enough to rank Vancouver alongside the worst-affected areas of the United States.
The document is scheduled to go to council on Thursday (December 20). It is the first major product of the Mayor’s Overdose Emergency Task Force, a body that Vancouver’s new mayor, Kennedy Stewart, established shortly after he was elected to office last October.
Although most of Vancouver’s fatal overdoses continue to occur in the Downtown Eastside, the ratio of overdose calls to fatal overdoses is significantly wider there than in most other areas of Vancouver, the report notes.
In the Downtown Eastside, there are 27 overdose calls for every one fatal overdose; in neighbouring Grandview-woodland, there are 38 overdose calls for each overdose death.
This suggests that the harmreduction programs deployed there— supervised-consumption sites, for example, and outreach teams trained in overdose response—appear to be doing their jobs.
Meanwhile, in Kitsilano, there are 18 calls for every one death. In Fairview, there are 11; in Mount Pleasant, there are 13; and in South Cambie–riley Park, there are 12.
In Kensington, though, a community that includes a concentration of survival sex workers along Kingsway, there are just four overdose calls for each overdose death. That has prompted special attention from the city. “The gap in services and programs in this area has created barriers to accessing services and support for survival sex workers, many of whom are affected by the opioid overdose crisis,” the report reads.
It repeatedly recommends that harm-reduction programs that have proven effective in saving lives in the Downtown Eastside expand into other areas of the city.
For example, during the winter of 2016, supportive-housing providers such as Atira Women’s Resource Society, the Portland Hotel Society (PHS), and Raincity Housing integrated supervised-consumption spaces for drug users, essentially decriminalizing drugs inside their buildings. This has had the effect of reducing stigma and promoting safer practices for using drugs. City staff have now recommended that other nonprofithousing providers and privately owned buildings copy those examples.
The report also recommends the city work with provincial partners, including the B.C. Centre for Disease Control (BCCDC), to make clean prescription drugs available to people addicted to opioids who are risking their lives with fentanyl on the streets.
In a telephone interview, Jordan Westfall, president of the Canadian Association of People Who Use Drugs (CAPUD), described the report as encouraging, but he criticized the review for failing to devote much attention to how policing and the criminalization of addiction are exacerbating the crisis.
“We are very disappointed the city still refuses to discuss the role that the VPD plays in worsening the overdose crisis,” Westfall said.
As of December 16, there had been 353 fatal overdoses in the city of Vancouver during 2018. That compares to 367 during all of 2017. From 2001 to 2010, the average number of fatal overdoses in Vancouver each year was 57.
Karen Ward is a former Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users (VANDU) board member and more recently has served as a consultant on drug use for the BCCDC. She criticized the report for a lack of urgency.
“It does not acknowledge that the constant state of emergency in this neighbourhood [the Downtown Eastside] needs to end,” Ward told the Straight. “It implies that the status quo in this neighbourhood is fine, and it is not.”