At least eight people have died of drug overdoses while trying to get clean in private drug recovery houses in the past three years compared to just one in comparable public beds, according to a CTV News investigation.

Critics say the deaths are a sad consequence of a system that has little government oversight and offers no punishments for people running houses that may be taking advantage of their vulnerable customers.

“I just shake my head,” said Sherry Mumford, the director of clinical operations for the Fraser Health Authority. “How is it we get away with treating people with addictions the way we do?”

Mumford said while many houses are well-run, she has heard of horror stories including drug dealing to clients, sending clients to food banks, and the ever-present threat that someone in charge will succumb to addiction themselves.

“We see and hear about this all the time. It’s a vulnerable population. I’m appalled,” she said.

Drug addicts crave a regular supply of illicit drugs like heroin or crack cocaine, and often commit petty crime like stealing cars to get the money to pay for them.

Addicts can go to public treatment facilities to try to get clean – there are 449 licensed residential recovery beds in the Fraser and Vancouver Coastal health authorities, according to officials.

But the parallel, unregulated system is nearly twice as big, according to a CTV News review, totaling at least 847 beds.

One of the dead in those homes was a 31-year-old American citizen named Victoria Walker, a heroin addict who had been sexually assaulted in her home state of Washington and arrived in a recovery house called 24 Hours in early 2011.

Walker stayed in a room at the 24 Hours house, on Fraser Highway in Surrey, where she met Lisa Tasker, another recovering addict who says she was the house supervisor.

“We became close friends. She was an awesome lady,” recalled Tasker.

Tasker said her job was to help residents like Walker get clean. But she admitted to CTV News that she was an addict herself at the time.

“I was using with half the house,” she said. “You had people running across the street to meet the dope dealer left, right and centre.”

Tasker said one night Walker didn’t answer her bedroom door. Tasker said at the time she didn’t care, because she wanted to go outside to smoke crack. She didn’t realize that inside, Walker was dying of an overdose.

“I should have done my job properly,” Tasker told CTV News, adding that if she had checked on Walker and called the ambulance she might still be alive. “But I just wanted to use drugs as well. I was just thinking about my next crack high.”

Coroner Vince Stancato listed the cause of Walker’s death as respiratory suppression and failure due to acute narcotic use, by the means of an accidental overdose.

She is one of eight people who the coroner identified as having a drug-related death in a recovery home, though the agency concedes the number may be much higher because it does not require recovery houses to be identified in its reports.

When CTV News visited the 24 Hours house on Fraser Highway, we weren’t welcomed – one woman who identified herself as being a house manager refused to talk to our reporters, and flashed the middle finger at a cameraman.

The house on Fraser Highway is one of at least six houses run by Steve Raman. When CTV News called him, he agreed to meet at another house.

Raman said he remembered Victoria Walker, and spoke with her family after the incident. Raman said he thought Walker’s death was a tragedy.

He said he hires staff to keep his houses clean, and has houses inspected by the Surrey Fire Department. But he says caring for drug addicts can be a risky proposition.

“We can make a lot of rules and regulations, but if any person chooses to pick up a drug, what can you really do?”

Another former resident gave 24 Hours a good review, telling CTV News, “My life was a mess. And I’ve changed it around.”

The coroner’s office refused to disclose the names of the dead or the addresses where the deaths happened. The ages ranged from 24 to 54. Five were male, and three were female. The drugs that killed them were heroin, cocaine, and in one case septic shock after intravenous drug use.

The investigations into their deaths were largely one-page reports.

The lone person to die of an overdose in a Vancouver public facility was a 40-year-old woman who was mixing heroin and prescription medications. The coroner did a lengthy investigation in that case.

Vision Quest Recovery House director Jim O’Rourke says it largely depends on who runs the house about whether there is quality care.

Many houses operate getting welfare cheques from the provincial government, he says, but the government doesn’t follow up to see if the housing is adequate or the treatment is good.

“They think that it’s housing and what happens after is none of their business,” he said.

Another recovery house operator, Debbie Johnson, expressed her frustration.

“Recovery isn’t what it used to be,” she said. “There’s no structure, no guidance.”

And Lisa Tasker says she is wracked with guilt about what happened to Walker, and at one point contemplated suicide.

Tasker said she hopes that sharing what happened can prevent further deaths. But she says any change will be tough with a clientele that says they want to get clean – but are addicts who will do almost anything for drugs.

“All people do sometimes,” she says, “is sleep in their rooms, and figure out where to get their next high.”

With a report from CTV British Columbia’s Jon Woodward

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