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Health authority secures 'discreet' location for Vancouver overdose prevention site

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After months of trying to find a suitable location, Vancouver Coastal Health has secured a new home for the Thomus Donaghy Overdose Prevention Site.

The site is set to open Wednesday afternoon and is located on the block of Howe Street between Nelson and Helmcken streets, behind a social housing building.

According to Dr. Mark Lysyshyn, the deputy chief medical health officer with the health authority, this area of the downtown core has the second-highest overdose mortality rate in the health region. He acknowledged it was a challenge to find a new site and that it was important for it to be in close proximity to the previous location at 1101 Seymour St.

“We know that people don’t travel far for these locations, for these services,” he said. “If people don’t go to these services, they don’t work.”

Lease not renewed

In July, 2023, the City of Vancouver announced it would not be renewing the lease of the Thomus Donaghy OPS on Seymour and Helmcken streets. 

Some residents had raised complaints with the city, citing discarded needles in the neighborhood and alleged street disorder. 

A proposed class action was filed last year by 1111 Seymour Residences Ltd. and Michael Wilson, a plaintiff who lives a few blocks away from the OPS. 

“We’ve said all along that our problem is not with harm reduction or overdose prevention,” Wilson said. “They’re important measures, but it’s how things were operated at this location.”

Wilson said he’s hesitant about the new location.

“Is it just moving?” he said. “Or is there an actual change in how these services are administered.”

Lysyshyn said when VCH initially opened the location at 1101 Seymour St., the focus was to offer supervised injection services because that was predominantly how people were using drugs. In the last few years, he said that’s changed.

“More and more people are inhaling drugs and more and more overdoses are associated with inhaling drugs and so we need to offer supervised inhalation services, but there are some challenges in offering that because it’s difficult to offer those services indoors,” he said.

The new location on Howe Street will be run by RainCity Housing and Support Society and will offer both supervised injection and outdoor supervised inhalation services in white tents. Lysyshyn said the tents are not street facing and therefore provide a discreet location for the people using the service as well as community members.

“In some ways, we will be meeting the needs of clients better at this site,” he said.

'Less public drug use'

Lysyshyn added that because more people are inhaling their drugs and they can’t use them inside supervised injections sites, they're forced to use those drugs outside. The new site, he said will help alleviate some of these challenges.

“The studies done about these sites is that they do improve community order by having less public drug use, less public overdoses and less public deaths,” he said.

The deputy chief medical health officer said VCH plans to continue to be a good neighbour at this site, despite it not being able to control the behaviour of those who may or may not use the service.

According to VCH, more than 200 overdoses were reversed at the OPS on 1101 Seymour Street in the three-year period it was in service. 

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