News / Vancouver

Housing key to treating addiction Vancouver-area conference hears

Author argues addiction stems from people’s attempt to deal with trauma and lack of social connection.

A homeless woman sleeps at a tent city at Oppenheimer Park in the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver Wednesday Oct. 15, 2014.

DARRYL DYCK / The Canadian Press

A homeless woman sleeps at a tent city at Oppenheimer Park in the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver Wednesday Oct. 15, 2014.

To Janice Abbott, the link between housing and addiction is a direct line.

“One of the things that happens when women don’t have housing is that women use (drugs) to stay safe,” the CEO of Atira Women’s Resource Society told attendees at the Housing Central Conference in Richmond on Monday.

“Young women on the streets use speed, any upper, to be able to stay awake so they can keep themselves safe from all the predation that’s on the streets.”

Homelessness among women is often “invisible,” she added, meaning that women are often enduring domestic or sexual abuse to keep a roof over their heads — and using drugs to cope with the trauma. She added that many of the women who use drugs at Atira’s women-only overdose prevention site in the early morning are sex workers who are getting high before they go to work.

“When you don’t have to worry about staying safe, when you don’t have to worry about trading sex, when you don’t have to worry about violence you can start to think about your substance use,” she said.

Abbott was speaking on a panel with several other housing providers and Johann Hari, the British author of the book Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs.

Hari argues in his book — which includes a section devoted to pioneering harm reduction work done in the Downtown Eastside — that drugs don’t cause addiction, but rather addiction stems from people’s attempt to deal with trauma and a lack of social connection.

His message resonated with Abbott and the other panellists: Keir Macdonald of the Lookout Society, which runs shelters and housing, and Ross Laird, an addictions expert. Using illicit drugs in British Columbia is currently a deadly risk: the province’s illicit drug supply is widely contaminated with the deadly synthetic opioid fentanyl, and more than a hundred people a month are now dying of fatal overdoses.

Abbott’s organization also operates housing, half of which is low barrier, meaning that residents don’t have to be drug-free to live there.

Speaking to Abbott’s examples, Hari said that while he was researching his book, he was struck by the decrease in prostitution in Switzerland after that country instituted a prescription heroin program.

“They did not expect the prostitution market would change so dramatically,” Hari said. “I found that really haunting when I went there — it was women’s lives that were changed the most by that program. Much of what we think of as chosen prostitution is coerced by these horrible situations.”

Macdonald expressed frustration that the federal government is against talking about decriminalization, an approach that has had positive social benefits in Portugal.

The B.C. government has shown more willingness to have that discussion, Macdonald said.

Advocates for approaches like prescription heroin and decriminalization argue that resources can be reallocated from policing, to treatment and social policies that alleviate the root causes of addiction, such as poverty and childhood abuse.

Decriminalization would also reduce the deep stigma that comes with drug addiction and homelessness, Macdonald said.

While politicians often fear the public reaction to policies like decriminalization, Hari said there are ways to get the public onside — avoid the technical language and tap into basic human connections.

“People with addictions are people like you and me, they have as much right to a good life as any of us, you would love them if you knew them,” Hari said.

More on