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Vancouver urged to support overdose prevention sites in single-room occupancy hotels

A proposal is currently before council to spend $2.1 million on additional fire fighters, a new community policing centre and more training for city staff.

A man uses drugs at the injection site off of East Hastings street on Dec. 22, 2016.

Jennifer Gauthier/Metro File

A man uses drugs at the injection site off of East Hastings street on Dec. 22, 2016.

“We can’t emergency respond our way out of this,” provincial health officials warned Vancouver’s city council on Jan. 24 as council considered spending $1.9 million for an additional medic crew for Fire Hall No. 2 and $200,000 to create a new community policing centre in Strathcona.

The initiatives would make up the first round of a possible $3.5 million earmarked to fight a deadly opioid overdose crisis that killed 215 Vancouver residents in 2016. Vancouver had both the highest number and rate of drug deaths in the province.

Deputy city manager Paul Mochrie said city staff are also working on several other initiatives that will come before council in the future, including supporting overdose prevention sites located in single-room occupancy hotels, public education campaigns and programs targeted to aboriginal drug users.

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In December, the city added an extra 0.5 per cent property tax increase in order to raise the $3.5 million. VANDU, a drug user advocacy group, has been critical of using a substantial portion of those funds to create the new community policing centre, describing it as a “NIMBY” reaction to homelessness and drug use. VANDU would like to see that money spent instead on creating more overdose prevention sites.

Overdose deaths spiked in November and December of 2016 and early indications are that the number of fatalities will be the same or higher in January, said Dr. Reka Gustafson, medical health officer for Vancouver Coastal Health.

She emphasized that the only way to get the number of fatalities down is to decriminalize illicit drugs and offer a range of treatments, including prescription heroin and other injectable substitutions like hydromorphone.

“Addiction is not a choice,” Gustafson said.

A fire engine returns to Fire Hall No. 2 in the Downtown Eastside on Monday, Jan. 23, 2017.

Jen St. Denis/Metro

A fire engine returns to Fire Hall No. 2 in the Downtown Eastside on Monday, Jan. 23, 2017.

Gustafson stressed that municipal leaders need to advocate to the federal and provincial governments for change. But more immediately, the city can support the creation of safe spaces to use drugs in SROs and help to train SRO staff to respond to overdoses, she said.

The majority of people who have died of overdoses have been using drugs alone inside their home. No fatalities have occurred at several overdose prevention sites that have been operating since December.

Council will hear from speakers on the issue on Jan. 25 starting at 9:30 a.m.

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