One day last week, Campbell River’s Overdose Prevention Site saved the lives of four members of our community.
But they didn’t have any time to congratulate themselves, just as they didn’t have time to celebrate the lives they saved the day before. Because there were more people to save the next day.
And the day after. And the day after that.
Because that’s what they do. 365 days per year.
The centre is run by AVI Health and Community Services Campbell River and overseen by interim manager Sarah Delaney-Spindler. It’s a place, she says, with few – but extremely dedicated – staff, making a huge difference.
While an Overdose Prevention Site, or OPS, is a lesser-known term than “Safe Injection Site,” it’s a fairly widely-held misconception that’s what AVI Campbell River is, Delaney-Spindler says.
When she explains to people what they do at AVI, she admits she’ll say to people, “it’s like a Safe Injection Site,” but only because it’s a term more people recognize. But while they have similar functions in some ways, the Campbell River OPS is much more than just a place where people can access clean drug supplies and consume their products in a sterile, safe environment.
“Yes, we provide an Overdose Prevention Site where folks can use substances,” Delaney-Spindler says, showing me the two stations in the Overdose Prevention Room (OPR) we’re sitting in, ready to leave should someone need to use it. The stations have clean, medical-looking metal tables and are well lit by bright overhead lamps.
“But we also have the positive wellness program, which supports people living with HIV or Hep C, we do harm reduction and distribution – so supplying folks with clean needles, crack pipes, meth pipes, condoms, any sort of safer-injection education, naloxone plus training – as well as safer sex education, ,” Delaney-Spindler continues. “We also have an education outreach team who goes out into the community and provides education to local businesses, the college, ambulance, RCMP, you name it.”
And unfortunately, they’re busier than ever.
“We are definitely seeing a trend up in OPR use, as well as supplies going out,” Delaney-Spindler says. “Just yesterday we had 33 folks use this room. And we had four overdoses. That’s four people who would have died yesterday if they’d been using in an alley.”
But even Delaney-Spindler is conflicted on whether or not more people using the site is a positive thing. In one way, it means they’re saving more lives, but in another way, it reflects, most likely, that more people are turning to hard drugs to cope with the issues in their lives.
“We certainly have a lot of regulars, but when I look at the numbers and compare it to what I actually see while I’m here, I think that more people are using the site, rather than it being just the same people coming more often,” Delaney-Spindler says. “If you look at numbers like our vacancy rate in Campbell River, it’s super scary, and not just because that’s the amount of available housing, but it’s also all the circles around that. People who are on the borderline, or are at-risk, they are so much more vulnerable to crossing that line from ‘vulnerable’ into ‘poverty’ and ending up on the streets.
“So while it’s great that people are utilizing the service, it’s not great that that’s a trend in our community,” she continues. “But at least we’re here.”
While it’s an extremely rewarding thing she’s doing, and she loves that she gets to help people every day, there is a downside, Delaney-Spindler says: There will always be people who don’t think they should be doing what they’re doing.
There are people who would rather, it seems, that the people she and her team serves, just die.
“It’s pretty difficult to hear those viewpoints, for sure,” Delaney-Spindler says. “But I try to tell myself that those people are probably coming at this from a pretty privileged viewpoint and hasn’t had to deal with substance use or a family member with a substance use disorder and I try to reframe it for folks.
“I try to say to them: If this human being – and this is a fellow human being we’re talking about here – is going to use drugs, which they are, isn’t it better that we’re here to a) give them clean supplies, b) support them if they want to make a change, c) help them to stay alive another day so they can make that choice tomorrow if they don’t want to today? They’re going to use whether we’re here or not, so let’s mitigate disease transmission. Let’s mitigate death.”
So while she’s frustrated by the people who feel that way – and she sees a lot of it, unfortunately – she says she tends to see people look at the situation differently once she reframes the discussion for them.
But one of their frustrations she totally understands.
While they track the number of supplies going out the door, she knows that a lot of the people who use their services aren’t going to dispose of those supplies responsibly, and they could end up in places they’re not welcome.
“We try to, especially with the syringes that go out, encourage that people bring them back to us in order to keep our community clean, by providing incentives for people to bring us back their used rigs and needles, including monthly draws for gift cards, because it has been an issue in the community,” she says. “We’re definitely trying to do more and more things in terms of working with bylaw and our neighbours to create safer spaces for everybody.”
While they are funded by Island Health, primarily, but also a number of other funding partners, Delaney-Spindler says there’s simply not enough money flowing into the problem.
“You can’t just throw money at problems like this and make them go away,” she admits, “but if there was more money, we could hire more staff, our hours could be greater, our outreach could be extended into outlying communities – so many people come in from Gold River, Sayward, Cortes, to get supplies to take out to their communities and we’d love to try and help them more.
“We could just straight-up help more people if we had more resources.”
But what they already do is certainly appreciated by those they serve, as evidenced by their willingness to step in at a moment’s notice after staff arrived one Saturday morning and found the facility flooded due to an equipment failure.
“At some point on Friday night, something burst,” Delaney-Spindler says. “And it ran all night into our office, and when we got here Saturday morning, we got Johnny Dollar plumbing in and Ripple Rock Restorations in right away – and they’ve been phenomenal in supporting us – and we had several of our service users who stepped up right away, pushing water out the door, grabbing mops and dust bins or whatever they could to get water out of here.
“It was absolutely an all-hands-on-deck type situation, and they did it willingly and happily. They value us as much as we value them, and it was amazing and heartwarming to see the camaraderie and the coming together to help us.”
The OPR was closed for two days, but they didn’t lose any service hours, because they managed to get a temporary shelter set up in the parking lot so they could continue to offer services.
And so, the facility continues to be open Monday through Thursday, 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., Friday to Sunday, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. It is located at 1371 (c) Cedar Street, behind the Salvation Army Lighthouse Community Kitchen.
You can find more information about their services at avi.org