Vancouver’s first indoor overdose prevention site outside the Eastside

By Moira Wyton, The Tyee, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

People who use drugs and harm reduction advocates were celebrating as Vancouver’s first indoor overdose prevention site outside the Downtown  Eastside was approved in a seven-to-four vote by city council Tuesday.

All four NPA councillors voted against the motion.

127 more overdose deaths

The site’s approval came the same day the province announced another 127 overdose deaths in September, bringing B.C.’s total number of deaths this year to  1,202. Vancouver has recorded 291 deaths, already surpassing the 2019  total of 247.

“One-hundred and twenty-seven people died  in the province last month,” Karen Ward, a Downtown Eastside advocate  who worked on the site proposal, said in an interview. “You can’t say,  ‘It’s a crisis,’ and then say, ‘Well we’ve got to check with the  neighbours,’ in the same sentence anymore.”

Fears of crime and disorder

The site across from Emery  Barnes Park at Seymour and Helmcken was met with fierce opposition from  residents of Yaletown and Vancouver’s West End who said they feared it  would worsen what they describe as rising crime and disorder.

The location’s proximity to  the park and concerns about attracting people who sell drugs were  brought up many times by housed residents at last week’s public hearing  on the topic and by some councillors.

“I don’t feel the community feels heard,”  said NPA Coun. Sarah Kirby-Yung, who voted against the motion Tuesday.  “We need to do it in a way that brings people along.”

Assurances of safety

But the six councillors and Mayor Kennedy  Stewart who voted to approve a lease with Vancouver Coastal Health  signalled confidence that conditions attached to the agreement would  ensure it operated safely for clients and neighbours.

One City Coun. Christine Boyle pointed out that many people who use drugs “feel their lives are being debated in this lease.”

“In terms of public safety, the safest option is to open this OPS,” said Boyle. “This is a crisis and we can’t afford to delay.”

The lease conditions include requirements  that Vancouver Coastal Health and RainCity Housing, which will operate  the site, take responsibility for addressing issues like cleanup, noise  and disorder.

The amended proposal

Initially, the proposal sought council  approval for a lease with RainCity that would provide space in the  city-owned building at below-market rates.

But on Monday city staff proposed an  amendment that would see Vancouver Coastal lease the site at market  rates to increase accountability and “address public concerns around the  site.”

The original proposal would have required  the support of two-thirds of councillors, while the amended motion could  be passed with a simple majority.

Kirby-Yung and fellow NPA Coun. Colleen  Hardwick expressed frustration with what they said were “changing  goalposts” for the motion, which would have been defeated based on the  two-thirds requirement.

Ward said the last-minute change muddied  the conversation but is glad “VCH stood up and said we’ll figure this  out on our own,” and took the lead on making sure the site is a success.

Outside the Downtown Eastside

The site represents the first major step to  deliver indoor overdose prevention services outside the Downtown  Eastside. Amendments to the initial motion appeared to pave the way for  more indoor and mobile overdose prevention sites in other areas of the  city where they’re needed.

A majority of Vancouver’s  overdose emergency calls originate in the Downtown Eastside, but not far  behind is the general downtown zone, where one in seven calls occur.

Ward said the site will provide needed supports.

“It’s going to mean that the people living  in the alcoves of Granville Street alleys will be able to have a human  conversation with someone for the first time in years,” she said. “It  could mean everything to them.”

South Vancouver and Commercial Drive areas  also have significant numbers of overdoses. Councillors asked city staff  to work with Vancouver Coastal Health to identify more suitable spaces  for mobile overdose prevention sites across the city.

Councillors also expressed concern about  the lack of progress in providing safer supply to let people avoid toxic  illicit drugs and urged staff and the health authority to provide safer  supply of substances at the new site.

Ward said it’s heartening to see the  overdose prevention site approved, but there are too few efforts to  prevent people from needing to go there in the first place.

“We have got to be able not just to  intervene, but just to give options. And that’s the problem in the DTES,  people don’t see options,” she said.

And while opposition to the site was  fierce, Ward hopes it will lead to deeper collaboration on improving  safety for everyone in the neighbourhood.

“I hope people will think more critically about the ways that we imagine our communities.”

Top photo credits: Opponents of the planned overdose prevention site said they feared it would lead to problems in nearby Emery Barnes Park. Photo by Arbron, licensed under CC BY 2.0.