A temporary inhalation overdose prevention site in downtown Victoria is scheduled to open mid-November pending recruitment of staff and construction, Island Health announced Thursday.
The new site, part of the province’s response to the toxic drug overdose crisis, is scheduled to operate over 10 months out of a city-owned lot at 926 Pandora Ave., across from the Harbour Supervised Consumption Service.
The site will be open seven days a week from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. and accommodate up to 15 clients at a time.
Island Health said it recognizes neighbours’ interest and expectation to be consulted but under the Public Health Emergency Order from April 2016, health service providers are not required to consult when setting up critical health care services.
People are already coming to Pandora Avenue to access health and social services, said Island Health, and some are smoking drugs outdoors in a highly visible way that is unsafe for them and those around them.
“We anticipate this service will reduce congregation and other concerns we see on the block by providing a structured, safe environment where people can use substances off the street and behind privacy screens and where they can access life-saving interventions in the event of overdose,” said Island Health in a statement.
The service will be operated in partnership with the providers that operate the Harbour — Island Health, Lookout Health and Housing Society, and SOLID Outreach.
Staffing responsibilities include observing consumption, responding to overdoses, and providing referrals to clients interested in treatment and other supportive community services.
The Harbour provides harm-reduction supplies and monitors drug injections by people who bring their substances in with them. It includes 10 consumption booths, counselling rooms, naloxone kits and education resources. It does not, however, have space or infrastructure such as venting to provide inhalation services.
People who want to inject drugs will remain at The Harbour while people who inhale or smoke drugs will go to the new temporary site.
The temporary lot location is scheduled for redevelopment as affordable non-market housing and community amenities beginning in the fall of 2022. Island Health is trying to secure a permanent site for an inhalation overdose prevention service.
Data from the B.C. Coroners Service show that smoking is the most common mode of illicit drug consumption. In 2016, injection was the most common mode of consumption but from 2017 onwards it has been smoking. Injection has declined to 25 per cent in 2019 from 37 per cent in 2016 while smoking has risen to 40 per cent from 28 per cent. Front-line workers say that trend continues into 2021. Island Health said its sites that include inhalation are used more than those without.
Mental Health and Addictions Minister Sheila Malcolmson said the province continues to add more “witnessed inhalation sites because they save lives.” The new temporary location in Victoria is aimed at connecting more people to life-saving harm-reduction services and access to health and treatment programs if they want them, she said.
Island Health said the temporary location will be outfitted with trailers for staff and a covered area with ventilation that minimizes outdoor smoke. Fencing, shrubs and greenery will be installed to decrease visibility and increase privacy.
Island Health said it is also increasing funding for security on Pandora Avenue.
Dr. Richard Stanwick, chief medical health officer for Island Health, said as the toxic drug supply continues to cause fatal and non-fatal overdoses across B.C., an overdose prevention service focused on supporting individuals who inhale substances is needed.
Since January 2020, 461 people on Vancouver Island have died of toxic drug poisonings, almost half in Victoria.
Island Health has scouted for over a year for a location for an inhalation-focused overdose prevention site in Victoria and has not been able to secure one.
“The Pandora site has emerged as the only suitable location for a temporary solution,” the health authority said.
Victoria Mayor Lisa Helps said the city is moving ahead to redevelop the affordable non-market housing site next year, in partnership with B.C. Housing and the Capital Regional Housing Corporation, to help revitalize the area and provide 220 units of housing for a range of income levels.
“Until then, this temporary solution will support people where they are at and will save lives,” she said.