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Fighting on the frontline of Vancouver’s fentanyl epidemic

Former park board commissioner Sarah Blyth and team operate temporary supervised injection site to combat overdoses

“Can I get a light?”

“Anybody got a light?”

“I just need to light this f***ing candle, anybody got a light?”

Standing in a small trailer located within the confines of the Downtown Eastside Street Market on East Hastings Street near Columbia, a young man — thin, impossibly pale and soaking wet from a rainstorm — is in need of a light.

He’s also holding a spoon, syringe and a small package of what is likely heroin. He is not alone. The man is joined in the cramped trailer by at least nine other men, and one woman, seated at an L-shaped counter — each either administering drugs via hypodermic needle, or about to. The modified first-aid trailer was recently donated by Richmond-based EllisDon Construction and Boxx Modular Canada.

Meanwhile, a steady stream of bedraggled-looking men enter the space, each soaked through to the bone from the monsoon-like downpour. And while some choose to wait standing until a chair becomes vacant, others immediately turn around and head back down the stairs to shoot-up in either the makeshift tent set up just a few feet away or to a doorway in the neighbouring alley in an effort to shield themselves from the rain — and possibly from what they think are the prying eyes of this reporter and a Courier photographer. But before any photographs are taken and to ensure no one is startled by the flash from the camera, market manager and injection-site founder Sarah Blyth bellows out a warning.

“We have a photographer here from the media, so you can expect some flash, but he won’t take any pictures of you without permission,” Blyth explains, “unless, anyone would like to have their photo taken.”

On the frontline

It was last September when the former park board commissioner became the face of the fight against fentanyl with her grassroots efforts to bring attention to what she had already deemed a health crisis. Blyth teamed up with Downtown Eastside activists Ann Livingston and Chris Ewart to erect a tent to be used as a supervised injection site, one not initially sanctioned or supported by Vancouver Coastal Health. That one tent became two, but the overdoses continued. Finally this past December, Vancouver Coastal Health came on board and began providing clinical support and harm reduction supplies, while the PHS Community Services Society and its partners ensure the site is staffed 12 hours per day, seven days per week.

Blyth, who has a paid position with the society as the market’s coordinator, also volunteers much of her spare time to the injection site.

“I haven’t taken too many days off since we started,” Blyth said. “Even Christmas Day, I spent part of it at home and then headed down to the market.”

Blyth said early last year the market became the go-to place to find help when someone on the street was suffering an overdose. Then, as the number of overdoses steadily increased, Blyth was one of the first front-line workers to recognize something was really wrong.

“It’s tough to watch as more and more people around you die,” Blyth said. “After a while we said, let’s get a tent and some Narcan. Now we’re seeing hundreds of people a day, 25 at a time.”

Blyth has spoken to her 13-year-old son Sebastian about the crisis.

“I tell him things have changed and it’s not the same down here as it used to be. I tell all young people, you just have to be careful.”

Community effort

A team of volunteers, all trained in CPR and to administer the opiate antidote drug Narcan, stand on guard in case of an overdose. It’s the harsh new reality of the fentanyl crisis devastating not only this city’s Downtown Eastside, but the entire province, including many suburban areas. Fentanyl is a relatively inexpensive, powerful synthetic opioid being added to everything from cocaine to heroin and marijuana to imitation Valium.

Blyth calls the dozens of volunteers who help run the injection site seven days a week “beautiful people.”

“People in the community are taking care of each other,” Blyth said. “I’ve seen military members and paramedics down here, too. And even people who can’t stay to volunteer, have been dropping off food and blankets. We really need more blankets.”

Volunteer Norma Vaillancourt says she’s saved five lives since taking the training.

“You know they’re overdosing when they slouch over and their lips turn purple,” Vaillancourt explained. “The first time I had to give someone Narcan I was really nervous, but I’m not anymore. Then I like to sit with them and rub their shoulders as they come to, to make them feel safe.”

Political intervention  

It was recently reported in the Courier that 755 people in B.C. died of an illicit drug overdose between January and November 2016, a 70 per cent increase over the same period in 2015. The death toll reached that level after a record-breaking November in which 128 people died, the highest number of deaths recorded in a single month in recent memory in B.C. In Vancouver, the statistics show 164 people died in the first 11 months of the year. That’s 30 more for the same period in 2015 and 64 more than in 2014. In November, the B.C. Coroners Service confirmed an even more deadly synthetic opioid called carfentanil was found near the body of a man who died in East Vancouver. The drug, often used to tranquilize elephants, is considered the most toxic opioid used commercially.

“Carfentanil, fentanyl, pig de-wormer, they’re putting anything they can get into the drugs they’re selling,” Blyth said. “You think you’re taking a Valium and boom. The decision to take that Valium can be your last.”

Blyth credits efforts of the city and province, but says more needs to be done at the federal level.

“The City of Vancouver has also been very supportive and they trained 300 people how to use Narcan and [provincial Minister of Health] Terry Lake has been really understanding,” said Blyth. “It’s the feds that are dragging their feet repealing Bill C-2. This is an epidemic and they need to repeal that bill.”

Bill C-2, introduced by the Harper government and also known as the Respect for Communities Act, made it almost impossible to open supervised injection sites because of the 26 criteria, including a need to hold community consultations and seek approval from multiple stakeholders.

Prior to being elected in October 2015, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau promised to repeal the Respect for Communities Act, but had made no move until December 2016, when the Liberals announced the existing National Anti-Drug Strategy would be replaced with a “more balanced approach” called the Canadian Drugs and Substances Strategy. The new strategy “restores harm reduction as a core pillar of Canada’s drug policy.”

“What they need to do is legalize drugs like heroin,” said Blyth, pushing a strand of pale blue hair off her face. “The hospitals are filled with people, the morgues are full, ambulance attendants, firemen and police are all burning out. It’s devastating for nurses, mental health workers and even neighbours. Heroin isn’t even that expensive to make, so it has to be cheaper to make it and legalize it than paying for all of these services. Legalizing heroin would give people a chance to get their lives back on track and even stop the survival sex trade. This is not going away.”

A GoFundMe initiative at started by Blyth in September had a goal of raising $3,000, but to date has raised more than $27,000.

The money goes towards supplies, including cleaning products, candles and needles, as well as volunteer training and memorials. Blyth says it takes about $240 a day to operate the injection site.

“People care about this,” said Blyth. “It can be a simple mistake, but kids are dying from it. Something has to be done.”

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