It’s been years since Kevin Tierney has had so many reasons to hope.
The 40-year-old resident of Metro Vancouver has been homeless, in prison, and homeless again as he worked through a crippling addiction to fentanyl and crystal meth.
For the first time, he has a place to call his own: a small apartment provided by the Phoenix Society in Surrey, B.C., where he recently graduated from treatment for substance use.
“For me, this little apartment is everything. It gives me a safe place to lay my head at night and also a safe home base to work from,” he told Global News.
“I’m back in school. I have a plan for my future. I’m very excited about the new year and about my new life.”
It’s been more than five years since B.C. declared a public health emergency due to an unprecedented rise in opioid-related overdose deaths.
On Thursday, the BC Coroners Service announced 201 suspected illicit drug toxicity deaths for the month of October — the deadliest month ever reported in the province.
B.C. has recorded 1,782 suspected illicit drug toxicity deaths between January and October, making 2021 the worst year on record.
The numbers are “absolutely devastating” to Tierney, who has overdosed and needed an ambulance six times in his life and considers himself “very lucky just to be alive.”
“When I look around all I see, in my world, is chaos and death,” he explained. “I’ve lost most of my friends to the fentanyl crisis.”
Tierney said he has been “clean” for two months now, but that the Phoenix Society’s program is unique in that it provides participants with a long-term option for accommodation afterward. That also means he can stay close to his support network and the folks who helped him recover.
If the B.C. government is serious about saving lives, Tierney added, it must provide more services with a similar model.
“I’ve completed treatment programs in the past. Some of them were 30 days or 60 days, but then I just return to my community in active addiction,” he said.
“As much as I might have learned in treatment, when I just returned to my war zone essentially, my chances of being successful were just very slim.”
Phoenix CEO Keir Macdonald called the latest spike in opioid-related deaths “preventable.”
The province is not acting with enough urgency to save lives, he told Global News, with wait times between four and six weeks to access many provincially funded programs.
“We’re not doing enough to offer people hope or a pathway to a better life or a life worth living,” he said. “People can only take so much waiting, particularly if you’re unhoused.”
Many people who complete substance use programs end up on the street again, he added, while waiting for the next step.
So do people leaving prison, added Tierney.
“There is not enough support for that transition. Most guys get released with less than $500 in their pocket and nowhere to go, and they just end up back in the street,” he said.
“Addiction isn’t the problem. Addiction is the result of a problem.”
Macdonald said Tierney is proof that housing options are critical to the success of treatment programs, and an essential part of combatting the opioid crisis.
“We see it at Phoenix Society every day in stories like Kevin’s, and the remarkable transformations that are possible when people get access to the supports they need when they need it.”
In April, the B.C. government invested $500 million in mental health and addictions supports. Most recently, the funding was used in Fraser Health for new addictions medicine teams that will offer expertise to hospital-based patients.
Last month, the province also became the first in Canada to formally ask the federal government for an exemption from criminal penalties for people who possess small amounts of illicit drugs for personal use.
– With files from Richard Zussman