Vancouver city council could approve a new overdose prevention site in the Yaletown neighbourhood as early as next week.
A report headed to council on Tuesday recommends leasing a ground floor unit of a city-owned property at Helmken and Seymour streets to RainCity housing for the facility.
If approved, RainCity would take possession of the space on Nov. 1.
RainCity currently provides overdose prevention services from a site at St. Paul’s hospital, but is seeking a more permanent, indoor site.
The staff report cites the 2016 declaration of the overdose crisis as a public health emergency, the 2018 Mayor’s Overdose Emergency Task Force and the mounting death toll from opioid overdoses during the COVID-19 pandemic in recommending the new site.
Since the overdose emergency was declared in 2016, more than 5,000 people have died from toxic street drugs.
“The decline in overdose deaths prior to COVID-19 was seen in part due to the increase of overdose response and prevention services, including overdose prevention sites,” states the report.
“In recognition of the increased street activity in the Granville area that has arisen since the start of the pandemic, (Vancouver Coastal Health) and the city continue to work together to address the gap in harm reduction and overdose prevention services in the neighbourhood.”
Yaletown residents have been vocal about what they say is an increase in crime, street disorder and open drug use in the area.
In July, Vancouver police increased their presence in the area in response to public outcry.
“Unprovoked attacks, assaults where someone is minding their own business, a mother walking with a child, we’re seeing it first hand,” Deputy Vancouver Police Chief Howard Chow told Global News earlier this week.
Overdose prevention advocate Karen Ward says she’s prepared for pushback against the facility, but argued Saturday that a controlled, indoor place for drug users will render the neighbourhood safer for everyone.
“Nobody wants to be out in the garbage using behind a dumpster. We need to bring people inside and this is the best way to do that,” she said.
“It’s proven, there’s evidence all around the world. It’s not magic, it will take a little time, but I think it will settle down the situation. It’s harm reduction for everybody, really.”
Ward said harm reduction is just one piece of the puzzle in addressing the city’s homeless, drug and mental health problems, but an essential one that keeps people alive in the interim.
The prevention site would also act as an important point of human contact for people on the margins of society, she added.
“We just don’t want them to die. These are young people, they’re really young. Yes they’re messed up, but can we please just give them a chance?”
Speaking with Global News in a one-on-one interview Wednesday, provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry echoed that argument.
The combination of the COVID-19 pandemic with the existing drug crisis has increased the toxicity of drugs on the street, while prompting more people to use drugs alone, she said.
“We have to keep people alive,” she said. “There’s no chance of recovery if you’re not alive.”
But harm reduction alone won’t solve the problem, she added.
Ensuring users have access to non-toxic drugs and supportive housing are also necessary, she said, as well as policing.
“We need as well to work with the municipal leadership to step up things like police patrols in the appropriate way.”
If the new overdose prevention site is approved, it will be the first of its kind in Vancouver outside the Downtown Eastside.