The overdose prevention society has found a new location for a drug use center after learning it was due to vacate its current site in a West Pender Street car park by the end of the month.
Sarah Blyth, the company’s executive director, said the new site will open in April in a private building at 151 East Hastings St., which is adjacent to the Insite supervised drug injection site.
“I just ran everywhere and found a spot,” she said Thursday. “I’m happy because it will be more of a permanent location for now. We will be able to accommodate the people we are now hosting on West Pender.
Blyth said the rear of the property has ample outdoor space for people who choose to smoke drugs – a method of drug use that has grown in popularity in recent years and has been the main mode of consumption linked to overdose deaths.
The company sees several hundred drug users a day visiting the site at 99 West Pender St., which is a large open-air space with tents, picnic tables, restrooms and surrounded by a high fence .
The property is owned by Kenstone Properties, which said in an email that the short-term lease with the company comes to its natural end date at the end of the month.
“OPS has been circulating a narrative that we are forcing them off the site – we are not,” said Ming Leei-Lim, property manager at Kenstone, noting that she informed the company some years ago. months that the lease would not be renewed.
“It was always meant to be a temporary arrangement during the pandemic. We need to do some drilling and environmental testing as part of our site listing. »
How long the company will operate at its new site on East Hastings Street is unclear, with the city announcing in February that the Balmoral Hotel would be demolished this year. The famous single-room hotel is adjacent to the company’s new location.
The city purchased the Balmoral in 2020 from the Sahota family. The sale came three years after the city forced the Sahotas to close the hotel because it was in poor condition.
In February, the city said that after receiving two third-party engineering reports on the current fire and structural hazards at the hotel, it became clear that the building had deteriorated to the point of posing a hazard to the public and adjacent buildings.
The city’s decision to demolish the Balmoral confirmed what BC Housing CEO Shayne Ramsay said Glacier Media in May 2021 – that the Balmoral would be demolished and possibly part of a land assembly purchase to develop a large housing and health center on the block.
Such a real estate move would mean buying at least two properties from Concord Pacific, another property owned by the Sahota family, a building that houses the Insite injection site, a cannabis dispensary — located in the same low-rise building as the new location. of the company — and a few other properties.
Wall Financial developer Peter Wall has offered the city and province to work with him to build at least 168 housing units, a medical center, injection site and treatment rooms on the properties.
In the meantime, Blyth said she has a meeting scheduled for this week with the Vancouver Community Land Trust Foundation to explore ways to secure a permanent site to avoid having to move again.
Drug consumption sites have increased in Vancouver and across the province since Insite opened in September 2003 – one of the first legal sites in North America, with a small facility at the Dr. Peter Center in the West End .
As of December 2021, there were 39 overdose prevention and supervised consumption services in British Columbia, including 13 sites offering inhalation space, according to the Ministry of Mental Health and Addictions.
But there are no large, free-standing indoor inhalation sites in the province.
In 2019, Overdose Prevention Society board member Russell Maynard secured a $30,000 grant through the provincial government to develop a prototype self-contained inhalation room.
The study team for the research paper included Dr. Marcus Lem, former senior medical adviser for opioid addiction and overdose prevention policy at the BC Center for Disease Control.
Architect Sean McEwen, who designed Insite and Onsite, and Hannah Leyland, an intern architect in Vancouver whose graduate architecture thesis focused on the design of drug-using spaces, have also worked with Maynard. .
The team opted for a modular design similar to the modular housing that currently exists in Vancouver for people at risk of homelessness. Imagine a double-width mobile home, with a sloping roof, a porch, and enough room for six people in a room to smoke dope.
A ventilation and filtering system was important to the design, with the smoking area being airtight and separated from areas for staff and supervision. WorksafeBC would also be consulted on the final design and work protocols for staff.
Ultimately, a prototype was never built.
“I wrote this report three or four years ago, and still nothing,” said Maynard, a former director of injection site Insite, in a recent interview.
“Cost is a factor”
The Department of Mental Health and Addictions referred questions about the report to the BC Center for Disease Control, which said in an email that “work did not continue after the project was completed.”
The center noted that “stakeholder feedback indicates that cost is a factor in the design of indoor inhalation overdose prevention services.” The estimated cost to design and build a prototype was $850,000. Annual operating costs were estimated at $321,000.
“BCCDC continues to work with stakeholders to make safe inhalation sites accessible,” the email reads.
“This includes providing recommendations for outdoor inhalation overdose prevention services from the British Columbia Guide to Overdose Prevention Services, as well as work underway to develop guidelines including ventilation standards for interior locations.
Dr. Mark Lysyshyn, Deputy Chief Medical Officer of Vancouver Coastal Health, also pointed to the costs of developing indoor inhalation sites.
In particular, he said, would be the expense of creating occupational health and safety requirements that would be safe enough for workers “to save people with overdoses if there are other people who smoke in the environment”.
“Ideally, we’d like people to have indoor spaces as well,” Lysyshyn said. “But unfortunately that would take away our budget for all the other indoor supervised consumption spaces we have. And so we kind of have to balance that.
He said there are currently five sites in the Vancouver Coastal Health region that provide supervised inhalation services, including two in Vancouver, including the site at 99 West Pender St. All are outdoor spaces.
“Model that works”
Inland sites mentioned in Maynard’s report included locations in Lethbridge, Alberta. (capacity of three smokers), Copenhagen (12 smokers) and Paris (four smokers). Lysyshyn said he knows of a site in Victoria that offers indoor inhaling space for one smoker at a time.
“If a person has an overdose, the responder should put on personal protective equipment and come in,” he said. “I guess for a small site that isn’t very busy, you can serve some people like that.”
But such a model, he said, would not work in the context of the Downtown Eastside, where there are hundreds, if not thousands, of smokers. Lysyshyn thinks the West Pender outdoor venue is one of the busiest in the world.
“It’s a model that works,” he said, noting the high number of regularly reversed overdoses at the site. “While it’s nice for an individual to be able to smoke indoors — and we agree with that — it’s just that we need models that work. And that’s why we continue with this model.
At the very least, Maynard said, the BC Center for Disease Control and the health authority could park a construction trailer at the back of the property of the new Overdose Prevention Society site, add a proper ventilation system and the test for smokers.
Although he agreed that the number of drug users in Vancouver is significant – and meeting their current needs is crucial to saving lives. But having outdoor inhalation facilities that continue to operate in the city and other parts of the province, where the weather is harsh during the winter months, is not a long-term solution.
“When you’ve been doing these outdoor sites for at least four years, when is it no longer an emergency?” said Maynard.
“That’s all I’m saying – is there a need to move from an emergency to a public health model. People sitting in a tent with water pouring under their feet in the rain, in conditions low light conditions and in winter do not in any way constitute a public health setting.
Blyth, meanwhile, has two minds on the present and future of inhalation sites – agreeing with Maynard that permanent indoor facilities are needed, while emphasizing the need for emergency spaces now to respond to overdose death crisis.
The cost of building and operating a facility may seem prohibitive, but not when compared to the health care costs associated with drug use, Blyth said, noting the number of people who end up with brain damage and other injuries.
“It’s a huge expense,” she said. “So if you think in terms like that, you save money.”
More than 2,200 people died of drug overdoses in British Columbia last year.
Data released by the BC Coroners Service last month showed the highest percentage of overdose deaths in the province from 2017 to 2020 were the result of smoking rather than injection drug use.