Overdose-prevention sites being set up at motels housing people from homeless camps

Island Health hopes to set up drug-overdose prevention sites at each of the hotels and motels accepting people from the homeless camps at Topaz Park and Pandora Avenue in Victoria.

Kelly Reid, director of operations for mental-health and substance-use services, said the current plan is to have the sites open nine hours a day.

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“I don’t know if we’re going to be able to pull this off in every site, but where we can, we’ll provide both spaces where people can inject and be witnessed, and also inhale, because we know in Victoria a lot of overdoses … come from people who are inhaling their substances.”

Health officials say the COVID-19 outbreak has compounded the risks associated with B.C.’s overdose crisis, with border closures disrupting the supply chain and undercutting the quality of street drugs.

“So that’s created an inconsistent experience for people who are using them,” Reid said. “One time, you may not have experienced a very powerful effect, and so perhaps you’ll use more the next time and then you’ve got something that’s completely different and you could overdose.

“So the volatility and the inconsistency of the substances has been really problematic. We have had a significant increase in numbers of overdoses just recently and we’re quite sure that that’s one of the drivers behind that.”

Paramedics responded to 141 potential overdoses in Victoria last month, up from 125 in April 2019, B.C. Emergency Health Services reports. There were 34 potential overdoses in Victoria from Monday to Sunday last week, and 35 the previous week when social-assistance cheques were distributed.

Reid said Island Health is working with non-profit agencies such as AVI, SOLID Outreach Society, Peers Victoria Resources Society and the Umbrella Society to get harm-reduction services and the overdose-prevention sites in place at the hotels as soon as possible.

“We find that our contracting agencies and peers are just so skilled at engagement,” he said. “So we rely on them mostly, actually. They’re doing the lion’s share of the work.”

Reid said the agencies have already been visiting people at the hotels and motels to witness consumption and distribute harm-reduction supplies, while Island Health nurses provide additional outreach services.

As well, SOLID operates a pop-up overdose-prevention site at the Pandora camp, while AVI offers a similar service at Topaz, he said.

“So we think that, along with the outreach services that we’re providing now, we really need actual spaces in these locations that are safe and where people can use and be witnessed,” Reid said.

SOLID spokesman Mark Willson said it’s crucial for overdose-prevention services to be in place as people move indoors, because the risk is so high of someone dying in their room if there’s no one around.

He said the pop-up sites at Topaz and Pandora provide a decent level of support and it’s important that people have similar access once they move.

“If it can be on-site, that’s ideal,” he said. “If it can be very close to on-site, that’s second best. And we’ll do our best to work with everyone involved to make sure that people have the services they need.”

Evan James, team lead at the Umbrella Society, said the agency will continue its focus on building relationships, helping people get access to harm-reduction or recovery services.

“We are good at making connections,” he said. “We know the ins and outs of the treatment world, the detox world, and how to point people in the right direction when they want to make changes.”

Island Health said the overdose-prevention spaces at the hotels will be less elaborate than the permanent sites. “But I think, as we’ve learned through that crisis, that even small distributed local spaces with staff where people can use are actually extremely effective,” Reid said.

He said people at the hotels and motels will also have access to physicians who specialize in addictions medicine and have the ability to prescribe safe alternatives to street drugs.

“If they believe that safe supply is warranted and appropriate, then they’ll be providing that,” he said.

The B.C. government has issued a public-safety order to evacuate the Topaz and Pandora sites by Saturday. As of Sunday, B.C. Housing said it had moved 90 of about 360 people from the two camps.

lkines@timescolonist.com

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