Ottawa commits nearly $400,000 for safe drug van
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This article was published 08/07/2022 (264 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
The federal government is giving $400,000 to an inner-city resource centre to operate a van that is essentially a mobile safe-consumption site.
The Sunshine House vehicle is expected to provide naloxone, a medication used to reverse the effects of opioids in overdoses; drug-checking services, food and referrals to other supports in the city.
It will be on the road six days a week in key neighbourhoods — downtown, the West End, North End and Point Douglas — by late August.
Levi Foy, executive director of Sunshine House, a Logan Avenue drop-in centre, said the project is the result of years of work.
It started with surveying the public about safe-consumption sites.
“They wanted to see something that was mobile, that people can access conveniently and that was away from parks and playgrounds and other places,” Foy said Friday.
“But (it’s) a place where people in a central location can find information about safe supply, about harm reduction, and then just being able to use and go back to their neighbourhoods.”
Project co-ordinator Davey Cole said it will be the first of its kind in Winnipeg, operated by Indigenous and LGBTTQ+ community workers, where people can ensure their drugs aren’t contaminated and they can use them in a monitored area.
“That’s the goal: to make sure that people feel comfortable doing what they need to do, and in a space where they’re supported by people who know them and know the community,” Cole said.
“In terms of safety, a connection and relationship is how we do this work. So creating a space that was comfy, that people knew what they were walking into, and could just sit down and do what they need to do in a clean sterile environment.”
Foy said the van is technically not a safe-consumption site because it won’t be led “from a health-care perspective,” but rather one that’s peer-based.
Foy said Winnipeg Centre NDP MP Leah Gazan was instrumental in securing $384,000 in funding from Health Canada.
“This program is how you create real community safety, through care, not criminalization,” Gazan said in a statement.
The funding will be used to update the vehicle, pay staff and purchase harm-reduction supplies and resources. Sunshine House is looking to raise $105,000 to offset the cost of the vehicle and purchase a rapid drug-checking machine, which Foy said could cost $60,000.
The federal funding will be spread over 18 months, and during that time Sunshine House will gather data it can use to seek further funding.
“That’s the political game. Because we will have evidence to say that this is needed, there’s no doubt about it,” Foy said.
“Who’s going to pick up the tab on this? Is it the province? The feds? Is it the city? How do we use the evidence that we’re going to get out of this to build on this and expand on this? Right now, it’s all up in the air.”
In Manitoba, deaths due to drug overdose continue to rise yearly, and have doubled since the pandemic began; 200 in 2019; 372 in 2020; and 407 in 2021.
The 2021 number equals a rate of 30 deaths per 100,000 people in Manitoba.
Many drug users will not call 911 even in dire situations due to stigma and fear of criminal consequences, said Shohan Illsley, executive director of the Manitoba Harm Reduction Network.
A resource like the van will allow them to receive help and share information on the drugs being sold in the city that could save lives.
She hopes the program can be expanded to northern and remote communities.
“We do have a lot of informal safe consumption services wherever relatives are working hard to keep each other alive,” she said.
Foy pointed out that Winnipeg police have not intervened in pop-up harm-reduction programs conducted in the past.
“Folks are more supportive of these types of spaces for overdoses as opposed to having to attend overdose calls, where people tend to get agitated, tend to get ramped up in the presence of police. In these types of spaces, those risks are minimal,” Foy said.
Malak Abas is a reporter for the Winnipeg Free Press.