On Tuesday morning, Saint John’s member of parliament announced $200,000 in funding for the Avenue B Harm Reduction Centre as part of an $8.5-million investment in 28 harm reduction programs around the country.
But for executive director Julie Dingwell, the funds represent the freedom to continue innovating in a field she has devoted the last 20 years to.
“I think as a community we’re trying some innovative ways of how to get at people,” Dingwell said.
“[We] are training the people that already have good connections on the street, way better connections than we do to be able to help people to do more with their lives.”
The money is earmarked for the Peer Health Navigator Project, an initiative that trains front-line workers to offer support to Saint John’s population of drug users through education, peer outreach, and front-line interventions. But ultimately the program is about providing support in whatever way necessary.
“Sometimes, for example, somebody is just too afraid to go to an appointment, they just don’t want to go, and so somebody says ‘Hey I’ll go with you,’ or ‘I’ve got a bus pass, I can take us to the hospital and back and I’ll accompany you to that appointment,'” she said.
“A lot of time the people that come to us, that’s the one big thing that’s missing in their life is that piece of support that will enable them to move forward. So I like to think that that’s what we’re a part of is that we’re going to be enabling people to move forward with their lives.”
Avenue B was previously called AIDS Saint John, but was re-branded this past summer to better represent the mission and identity of the service. The centre distributes needles, crack pipe kits and condoms, hoping to help those engaged in drug use or sex work avoid being infected with blood-borne infections.
The federal government is investing $30 million over the next five years to fund harm reduction programs across the country. The funding, in part, speaks to a shift in how societal issues like drug use and sex work are viewed, becoming more the domain of public health than the criminal justice system.
“I think that we’ve been shifting for a long time,” Dingwell said.
“People have begun to realize that this is a far bigger picture and that, you know, the things that happen when people are young, that matters. The things that we do to support people when they run into issues, that matters too.”
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According to Health Canada, over 9,000 people died of opioid-related deaths between January 2016 and June 2018. In 2016, people who injected drugs accounted for 14.3 per cent of reported new HIV cases in Canada.
Saint John Mayor Don Darling says the numbers are staggering and highlights the need to listen to the experts like Dingwell, who work on the front lines.
“We’ve lost hundreds of people in Saint John and Greater Saint John in the last several years. I mean, if that narrative was different, if there was someone going around doing bad things to people it would be in the newspaper every single day,” he said.
“Experts in this field are saying we have to bring services to people where they are today and help them progress and help them evolve through their challenges … I think as elected officials it is our role to become informed and advocate and fight for what we believe in.”
Darling added that coming up with a multi-faceted harm reduction strategy is crucial in a city like Saint John that has some of the highest rates of poverty in the country.
“We’ve got to the end the stigma around, you know, people and the challenges they have in their lives and we do that by being vulnerable ourselves and being authentic and saying look, we’ve got significant challenges in the city of Saint John, in many cities around New Brunswick and we can’t bury this,” he said.
“We have to work together as elected officials and as experts and I suspect that Avenue B and all the other folks at the table cannot do this work without all the human and financial resources necessary.”
Saint John-Rothesay MP Wayne Long, who made Tuesday’s funding announcement on behalf of fellow New Brunswick MP and the Minister of Health Ginette Petitpas Taylor, says the conditions faced by those living in poverty or on the streets are a mystery to many in the region.
“We live in an incredibly caring community. I don’t think there’s any question about that,” he said.
“Saint John, Rothesay, day in and day out we see examples of people that go above and beyond. But a big part of that is also educating the community. So many people in this riding have no idea, no idea, what’s going on on the streets.”
But along with educating the public, Dingwell says there is a need for Saint Johners, and Canadians at large, to think about how society can begin to address the root causes behind drug use and homelessness.
“The opioid crisis has been coming for a long time. It’s been coming since the 80s and, we all waited and waited and ‘Oh it will get better’ and ‘Oh we’ll do this little piece here and we’ll do that,’ but it hasn’t gotten better and in fact it’s much worse,” she said.
“I think that what we really need to be thinking … about what’s going on, why it’s going on, and what do we do to address it.”