Gary Knutson, owner of Deja Vu Bookstore and Collectibles, says his building’s location beside Port Alberni’s overdose prevention site has forced him to close. MIKE YOUDS PHOTO

Gary Knutson, owner of Deja Vu Bookstore and Collectibles, says his building’s location beside Port Alberni’s overdose prevention site has forced him to close. MIKE YOUDS PHOTO

Island Health hits reset on Port Alberni’s overdose prevention site

Community engagement ordered after city complains to health minister


Special to the News

Island Health will require its Port Alberni service provider to address community concerns about the overdose prevention site on Third Avenue.

The directive to consult with neighbourhoods comes as part of a request for proposals issued in July for service providers to operate the sites in Duncan and Port Alberni.

When Island overdose prevention sites were opened two years ago, contracts were awarded directly to respond promptly to the opioid crisis. Now the health authority is opening up the process to other bidders with a view to improving service delivery.

“Island Health (VIHA) and service providers will work with local communities to reduce neighbourhood impact; however, the services must be located near people who rely on them,” the health authority stated in a recent news bulletin. VIHA acknowledges that concerns centre around where the services are located.

The move won’t come soon enough for one neighbouring business. Deja Vu Bookstore and Collectibles plans to close up shop as a direct result of the impact of the overdose prevention site, said owner Gary Knutson.

“We noticed within months that sales dropped right off to somewhere around half of what they were,” said Knutson, who has operated the store for 11 years. He said his customer base, largely comprised of women including seniors and young mothers, is intimidated by the presence of addicts.

“The thing most people don’t know about is that there is a presence in the neighbourhood all the time,” he said. His employees have been harassed, shoplifting has increased, and he’s concerned about possible break-ins.

“It’s terrible.”

The city urged the provincial government last month to hit reset and engage neighbours on the impacts of the site, complaining that it was opened without prior consultation.

Thursday, the health authority confirmed it has asked service providers to “engage with the community and develop a good neighbour agreement with the neighbours.”

Since 2016, Island Health has opened nine overdose prevention sites — front line of defence in a worsening fentanyl crisis — including the one on Third Avenue. Statistics show the move has been instrumental in saving lives. The Island sites have reversed 800 overdoses using the antidote naloxone and reported no deaths after logging more than 100,000 visits.

READ MORE: Reversing overdoses, saving lives

Despite the site’s availability seven days a week (8 a.m.-4 p.m.), 23 overdose deaths occurred in the Valley in the last two years, a rate twice the B.C. average and four times the national average. That number demonstrates the importance of the prevention sites. Two outreach teams offer additional support for addicts.

While nearby merchants are sympathetic, most point to negative impacts of drug-related behaviour on their businesses.

The site is part of a shelter operated by Port Alberni Shelter Society that offers a number of services to homeless clients and others dealing with substance addiction. Society director Wes Hewitt declined to comment on the neighbourhood concerns, referring questions to Island Health.

Mayor Mike Ruttan said the issue has been on council’s agenda. Councillor Jack McLeman took the concerns over neighbourhood impacts to the health minister at last month’s Union of BC Municipalities (UBCM) convention in Whistler. Ruttan said their quarrel isn’t with the need for such a site but with lack of consultation.

“The facility was put in there without consultation with the city or with businesses,” he said. “Minister (Judy) Darcy recognized it could have been done differently.”

Dr. Paul Hasselback, chief medical health officer for Island Health, recently indicated that the issues surrounding prevention site operation ought to be revisited, not just in Port Alberni but across the Island.

“It’s always been a tough neighbourhood,” said Jeremy Russell, assistant manager at nearby Southgate Auto. “That just made it worse.”

Drug-related litter has been an issue, although prevention site staff do regular cleanups of the surrounding streets. The front door at the Husky Station across the avenue was recently shattered by one client.

Dave Rutherford, owner of nearby Rainbow Lanes, echoed the comments of several other neighbours who see the prevention site as an essential health service.

“There are two different breeds of society, the haves and the have-nots, and everybody needs the services,” Rutherford said. He feels the facility should be located closer to law enforcement, though.

During the two-year period in which overdose prevention sites have operated in B.C., 8,000 people have died in the opioid/fentanyl crisis in Canada and eastern cities have followed suit with their own sites. At this point, 11 Canadians die from overdoses daily.

Island Health said 650 residents and 250 businesses located near the Port Alberni overdose prevention site were invited to respond to a survey on the overdose prevention site after it opened. A survey evaluation recommended “a formalized forum to enhance support” in OPS communities. The evaluation is posted on the Island Health website:

Knutson and other business people in the area said they were not contacted before or after the site opened. As owner of his storefront property, he wishes there was some form of compensation for the loss of value he predicts will happen to his building.

Island Health is promising ongoing engagement with the community and neighbours.

“We are committed to ensuring clients who use harm reduction services are safe and welcomed and, at the same time, we want to ensure neighbours also feel safe and secure,” the health authority stated in a response to a query from Alberni Valley News.