Squamish, B.C. – Vancouver Coastal Health (VCH) and Squamish Helping Hands, in partnership with the Sea to Sky Community Action Team (CAT), have opened an overdose prevention site (OPS) in Squamish in response to the increasing number of overdoses in this community. The new site is now open to the public at the former Helping Hands shelter on Third Avenue.
"The stigma that drives people to use alone and a pandemic that isolates them even further has been a recipe for a terrible surge in overdose deaths," says Sheila Malcolmson, Minister of Mental Health and Addictions. "People are hurting and we have to continue creating pathways so they can access the health care they need – with dignity, compassion and respect. This overdose prevention service is another example of B.C.'s unrelenting response to the overdose crisis."
"We are now in the sixth year of a significant and unyielding public health emergency. Squamish and other communities across our region continue to report record numbers of illegal drug overdose deaths. This new OPS will ensure people who are at risk of overdose in this community have access to low-barrier and lifesaving harm reduction services. Evidence tells us this model of care saves lives," says Dr. Patricia Daly, VCH Chief Medical Health Officer.
In 2020, BC's Coroners Service reported 1,716 overdose deaths in the province. In the North Shore/Coast Garibaldi (an area which includes Squamish), there were 46 deaths in 2020, compared to 26 in all of 2019. During the COVID-19 pandemic, many people at risk of overdose may choose to use drugs alone in private residences, increasing their risk of death.
"As a community, we have an imperative to provide basic lifesaving programs and services to our most vulnerable citizens, and right now, because the drug supply is profoundly toxic, this includes anyone who uses drugs," said Maureen Mackell, Executive Director of Squamish Helping Hands Society. "This means even recreational users' lives are at risk. For this reason, it is vital that people do not feel afraid to access harm reduction services in their community. This includes simply having their drugs checked for dangerous toxic additives to using in a supervised environment. There is no other solution to the housing crisis but housing. Likewise, there is no other solution to the overdose crisis than safe use."
VCH will provide education, clinical support, and harm reduction supplies, while Helping Hands will manage the day-to-day operations of the OPS. Staff and local peers who have been trained in overdose prevention and harm reduction will monitor clients on-site and where appropriate, they will facilitate access to addiction treatments and supports. The service is funded by VCH as well as the Sea to Sky CAT, which includes members from municipal governments, Squamish Nation, first responders, frontline community agencies, experts, and residents and families with lived experience.
"Our friends and loved ones are dying from a poisoned drug supply," said Jenna Becker, Coordinator of the Sea to Sky CAT. "The OPS is a pilot project aimed at supporting those in our community who need support. It's about linking people with resources, and supporting people to not use alone. It's another way to raise awareness about the risks; a resource for those who are struggling with substance use. As a community, we need to embrace those who are suffering and support those at risk. Death is so final, and we have lost far too many people to the overdose crisis."
VCH and Squamish Helping Hands Society are committed to ensuring that the site operates as a good neighbour to local residents and businesses, and are available to address any questions or concerns that arise. As with other OPS in the VCH region, staff will ensure a safe and well-kept environment surrounding the facility by conducting regular sweeps for discarded harm reduction supplies and litter.
Communications Leader- Public Health
Vancouver Coastal Health