The Cowichan Valley’s long-awaited overdose prevention site finally opened in 2017, but its arrival on the scene was not greeted with open arms by neighbours.
Driven by a growing opioid drug crisis that was exacerbated by the proliferation of fentanyl in 2016, higher levels of government had been moving to find ways to deal with the outfall: unexpected overdoses, and an increasing number of addicts as the drugs filtered down into even small communities.
Needles, too, posed an increasing problem, despite the appearance of ever more “sharps” disposal containers around the Valley.
In June, needles were found at the Evans Park T-ball field, as pointed out by Tina Baker, vice-president of Duncan Junior Baseball Association.
By the end of summer, everyone in positions of authority was voicing concern about the problem, as in October some firefighters had to dodge needles when fighting a fire in a pile of garbage at a homeless camp, while later, others had to watch for them while dousing a blaze in a squat in a house. A situation that had begun in 2016, with homeless people camping in the Somenos Marsh area behind the school district offices, and dropping discarded needles, has continued in that area.
Tent cities, one set up in Charles Hoey Park and another, smaller one later in the year near Warmland House, are further indications that the problem of overdose prevention is only one aspect of a much broader societal difficulty.
The Cowichan Valley’s harm reduction story kicked off in early May 2017 when Island Health and local officials said they planned to have a temporary overdose prevention site established in the Cowichan Valley by the summer. Island Health had already helped set up six overdose prevention sites on the Island in a number of communities impacted by the ongoing overdose emergency, mostly related to the increased use of fentanyl across B.C.
Kate Marsh, a councillor with the Municipality of North Cowichan, is a spokeswoman for the local Sobering and Detox Task Force that worked with Island Health to establish the temporary site in the area.
“The site will be staffed with professionals from Island Health and there will be no cost to municipalities. This is an important step to reduce deaths,” she said.
Dr. Paul Hasselback reported to North Cowichan council the previous year that there were up to four overdose cases a week at the Cowichan District Hospital, and the trend was for those numbers to increase.
Finally, at the end of August, a location for the site was announced: 715 Canada Ave. across the street from the Margaret Moss Health Centre. It opened in Duncan on Sept. 12.
“This new overdose prevention site is a critically important service that will save the lives of Cowichan residents who use illegal drugs, which are now widely contaminated,” said Minister of Mental Health and Addictions Judy Darcy. “As we grapple with the overdose crisis, services like this that prevent immediate harms must go hand in hand with improvements to broader addiction treatment services, so that people struggling with addiction can ask once and get help fast.”
When Darcy talks about contaminated drugs, she means that a large number of illicit drugs now sold contain the highly addictive and dangerous drug fentanyl.
“With the number of overdose deaths in our Cowichan community increasing in recent years, we know that overdose prevention services are needed,” said Island Health Medical Health Officer Dr. Shannon Waters. “This is an emergency effort that will save lives.”
The seven day a week part-time service is operated by the Cowichan Valley Branch of the Canadian Mental Health Association with funding from Island Health, and includes a medical clinic, and health and harm reduction services available at the Margaret Moss Health unit. Staff at the site are equipped with naloxone and are trained for overdose response.
The City of Duncan opposed the location of the site, saying it is too close to a residential neighbourhood, although their permission was not required. However, the City said it would step up commissionaire patrols in the area to help manage the site.
The municipality was not the only one unhappy. Neighbours objected, saying the location was a poor choice, too.
Third Street may look like it’s part of the downtown area, but it’s adjacent to homes as well, they said, calling the new site a potential blight on their neighbourhood.
Sharon Jackson, a long-time Duncan councillor, lives nearby, and found that her neighbours were just as frustrated as she was about seeing Island Health parachute such a facility into their area.
“People are angry, outraged, blindsided. VIHA, [Island Health], while saying they have done consultation, have, in fact, done no consultation,” she said.
Nearby businesses weren’t even consulted, according to Jackson.
“What happened was somebody went to the businesses and said, ‘Oh, in a week we’re opening this site. Here’s an information piece of paper.’
“And then they left. There’s been no consultation. There are three businesses that are seriously considering leaving, and two of my neighbours are considering leaving. I just got off the phone to a lady up in Nanaimo [at Island Health] where I said, ‘What you have done to this neighbourhood is unforgivable.’
“I have seen people mad for any number of reasons but the level of rage I’m experiencing on the street here is beyond anything I’ve ever seen before. If we have three businesses move, what’s that going to say?”
Jackson was concerned for the quality of life in the inner city residential neighbourhood.
“Third Street is a main thoroughfare for kids that are walking to Khowhemun [Elementary School]. They walk down Third, then through [Centennial] park, up the stairs and through to Khowhemun that way and then home again the same way. They won’t be encountering these people [drug users] early in the morning but they certainly will be in the afternoon. And it’s also a main thoroughfare for people coming through to the park.”
The neighbourhood may be close to the city core, but it is residential, Jackson maintains.
“Apparently, one of the reasons [Island Health] say they chose the site was because it wasn’t in a residential area, and I went berserk. There are lots of young families that live down here and there are lots of seniors with grandchildren down here. People are not only concerned for their safety and for their possessions and stuff but now they don’t want to let their grandkids play in the backyard by themselves. I don’t know who’s going to come through my own back gate,” she said.
Jackson stopped to reiterate that she was speaking for herself as a resident of the neighbourhood.
“I have to make it really clear that I’m not speaking for council on this issue. Council was not in favour of this and what the businesses are telling me is that the police were not in favour of this site. So why VIHA persisted and did it anyway, I don’t understand. It should be closer to the highway, number one, or they should have a mobile site. But sticking it right here is the worst possible thing. But they are determined that they are doing the right thing. What they’ve done is they’ve blighted this whole neighbourhood and people are very, very upset. Nobody is saying they shouldn’t have something like this. Nobody is saying that. But to stick it next to an inner city residential neighbourhood was a very, very bad move,” she said.
As an alternative location, Island Health should have looked for a place on the other side of the highway, or closer to the dike, according to Jackson.
“I know this situation is everywhere. One, is the problem that people can just go get needles and there is no requirement for a needle exchange and problem number two is that they’ve put the overdose clinic on the edge of our neighbourhood. They are expecting people to walk from behind McDonald’s the 10 blocks across town, inject themselves and walk all the way back? Well, they’re not. They’re going to go to the park. At least that is what the fear is.
“Now, the place has only been open for a week. I haven’t heard anything, but people are being extraordinarily cautious. Nobody is leaving their rakes or anything outside. Other people are saying, oh, it’s NIMBY, but it’s not really. You want to put the service where the majority of the problem is. When the City [of Duncan] gets complaints, nine times out of 10 it’s over on the highway so that’s where you put it,” Jackson said.