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Drug overdose prevention site opens on Howe Street in Vancouver

Mayor Ken Sim says he wanted the facility at St. Paul's Hospital.
Two large tents have been set up in a parking lot behind a social housing building in the 1000-block of Howe Street to serve as an overdose prevention site. The facility replaces the indoor site in the 1100-block of Seymour Street.

Vancouver Coastal Health (VCH) announced Wednesday that is has opened a drug overdose prevention site downtown to replace the facility in Yaletown that closed March 31 after the City of Vancouver decided not to renew the lease.

The Thomus Donaghy site had operated in the 1100-block of Seymour Street since March 2021 but VCH was informed by the City of Vancouver in July 2023 that it would not renew the lease on the city-owned space beyond March 2024.

At the time, the site was the subject of two lawsuits and numerous complaints related to drug activity, street disorder and concerns over public safety. Others in the harm reduction community rallied to keep the site open, noting its value in an area popular for drug use.

The Thomus Donaghy overdose prevention site at 1101 Seymour St. closed March 31 because the City of Vancouver did not renew the lease with Vancouver Coastal Health. Photo Mike Howell

'Increased privacy'

The new facility is located in a parking lot behind a social housing building in the 1000-block of Howe Street, a couple of blocks from the Seymour location. But unlike the previous site, the new one is set up outdoors in large white tents, where users can inject or smoke their drugs.

“The new site is accessed from Howe Street, but does not have street frontage, offering clients and residents increased privacy,” said the health agency in a news release.

“VCH is committed to being a good neighbour, working with the city, other local partners and residents to ensure the smooth operation of these health-care services.”

The health agency said the site will be supported by security, “sidewalk management,” litter and needle sweeps, community outreach teams, in addition to other supports “to ensure the health and safety of the people it serves as well as people in the surrounding area.”

'No judgment'

Anndrea Webb, who had previously used the Seymour facility, said she was happy to hear that another site had been set up in the area. Webb, 42, was sitting with a friend in the alley Wednesday behind the new site when she spoke to Glacier Media.

“It's something that I need in my life — a safe place to come to where there's no judgment, there's no grudges being held and just somewhere where I can feel comfortable enough to use safely,” said Webb, whose drugs of choice are crystal methamphetamine and fentanyl.

She said she smokes the drugs, which she will be able to do under the tents.

As Glacier Media has previously reported, more people in B.C. continue to die from smoking drugs than injecting them, yet there are very few overdose prevention sites in Vancouver that offer inhalation areas or services.

A drug user displays some of the supplies for smoking drugs. Photo Mike Howell

'A relief'

DJ Larkin, executive director of the Canadian Drug Policy Coalition, pointed out that concern in a statement Wednesday to Glacier Media. Larkin said the coalition was heartened to learn the new site will include a space for inhalation.

"It is a relief that VCH has secured a new location for the Yaletown overdose prevention site,” Larkin said.

“The existence of proven lifesaving services should never be subject to public opinion. In the context of a dangerously unregulated drug supply, supervised consumption services are one way we can keep our loved ones safer while reducing strain on the health system.”

Larkin said decades of evidence support supervised consumption as a public health intervention: they save lives, reduce emergency calls and connect people with important health and social services, including voluntary treatment.

“The majority of available peer-reviewed research on supervised consumption services suggests they can reduce public drug use and litter and improve public order in their surrounding communities,” Larkin said.

“Far too often, all over B.C., we see evidence-based services like this one blocked or delayed. The province must enforce the 2016 ministerial order on overdose prevention sites and ensure they are accessible wherever needed.”

Statistics from the former site on Seymour Street show it saw a 150 per cent increase in the volume of average daily visits. The health agency said more than 200 overdoses were reversed and many people at risk of overdose were connected to health-care services.

Coun. Peter Meiszner says city staff wasn't informed of the location of the new Howe Street overdose prevention site until Tuesday night. Photo Mike Howell

'Coming out of the blue'

Coun. Peter Meiszner, who was opposed to the Seymour location, said he and city staff members weren’t aware of the new facility’s location until Tuesday night. Meiszner said he had questions about consultation and management of the site.

“I'm glad to see that services are uninterrupted because it's important, obviously, that we are providing services for people that use drugs due to the toxic drug supply,” he said.

“But I’m concerned that I haven't seen any detailed plans on how they plan to operate or mitigate some of the issues that we experienced at the previous site.”

Meiszner said council was “advocating for and pushing for” the new site to be located at St. Paul's Hospital, where it could operate in a health-care setting; St. Paul’s once operated an outdoor site for the public, but now has one inside for patients.

“We think that that's where it should be, and it would mitigate a lot of the issues that it caused to the [Yaletown] neighbourhood,” he said.

“Clearly, that is not happening. This is kind of coming out of the blue — they've had more than six months to find another location, and that we just found out last night where it's going to be is really concerning to me.”

Mayor Ken Sim issued a statement, saying he was also disappointed the new site wasn’t moved to St. Paul’s Hospital. Sim echoed Meizner’s concerns about consultation.

“We can confirm that the City of Vancouver was not consulted on the new location of the OPS, although we appreciate VCH has to balance many factors when selecting locations for these health services,” the mayor said.

“We look forward to learning more from Vancouver Coastal Health about how they plan to operate this site in a way that provides these important services while mitigating impacts on Vancouver neighbourhoods like Yaletown."


Meanwhile, back in the alley, Webb said she was hopeful the new site wouldn’t be temporary, noting concerns raised by politicians and residents about the Seymour location.

“As long as people can be respectful and not let it get out of hand, then hopefully this might be a more permanent location because it seems to be an alright spot,” she said, noting she’s been in Vancouver for about nine years after leaving Vancouver Island.

What brought her to Vancouver?

“Trauma,” Webb said.

She’s working through it, she said, but at her pace. At the same time, she added, it was important not to use drugs alone, reiterating the need for a safe facility and one where she can connect with people and services.

“As much as we like to have our solitude — and there are many different reasons why — we don't really want to die,” she said.

“As much as our lives are awful…at the end of the day, we really just want to be heard. We do want the help, but we want it on our terms — and we want it when we're ready, and not to have it be pushed on us.”

Added Webb: “Gradually, eventually, some of us do come out of our shell and are eventually able to find that one person that is willing to listen and not interrupt and they grasp on and then that's when the flower blooms. It doesn't happen immediately, it will happen eventually. And as long as there's that tiny little bit of light, then there's room for growth.”

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