Rarely has our province, or our country, faced the crisis brought on by the scourge of fentanyl.
In 2016 alone, 914 people died of drug overdoses in B.C., mostly from fentanyl, representing an increase of over 80 per cent from 2015.
As B.C.'s fastest growing and second largest city, Surrey has been challenged with the impacts of this crisis. Last year, the Surrey Fire Service alone responded to 2,623 overdoses, up from 1,606 in 2015; an increase of over 60 per cent. That does not include the countless naloxone administrations by social service agencies and citizens which have averted many other deaths.
While the impact is spread across our community, data shows the problem is most acute on 135A Street between 106 and 108 avenues where addictions, mental health and housing challenges affect a core group of our most vulnerable individuals.
As a result, they often become street entrenched which, in turn, presents significant public health challenges. It also brings public safety challenges as these individuals are easily preyed upon by those willing to exploit their vulnerable situation and dependency.
It is often said we cannot go it alone on these issues and in Surrey we are not. In December of 2016, we unveiled our City Centre Response Plan. Our goal is to address the inherent public health and safety issues in a comprehensive and collaborative manner.
The City of Surrey, working in close partnership with the Surrey RCMP, Fraser Health, LookOut Society and several other community partners, put the plan in place to address housing, addictions, mental health and crime issues in the vicinity of 135A Street. The three phases of the plan are: Emergency Housing First, Enhanced Service Presence, and Consultation and Planning for Future Actions.
At the centre of our approach is building the relationships necessary to effect long term and positive change.
Our Surrey Outreach Team, made up of a proactive group of RCMP members and our bylaws staff, is on the strip 24/7.
Along with the fire service, paramedics and service agencies, they are champions for proactive, front-line relationship building.
The team works closely with Fraser Health and LookOut Society to build the relationships necessary to help each individual on the street most impacted by this crisis.
With B.C. Housing, we are expanding shelter spaces and aggressively seeking transitional housing spaces.
Fraser Health is expanding services through an integrated, treatment-focused approach to develop more options for individuals addicted to fentanyl or other opioids, including a safe consumption site.
Early on we are seeing promising results. People are being moved into housing, missing persons are being located and chronic predatory offenders are being dealt with. Most importantly, those most resistant to change are starting to see that we are there to help them get off the streets and into a continuum of care where they can find housing and treatment for their mental health and addictions challenges.
Our work here is only beginning. The street crisis of fentanyl is only one of the many issues we need to tackle. In homes across all our communities the dark figure of fentanyl is wreaking havoc.
We must double down to strengthen our prevention efforts and educate people on the dangers if we are to get a handle on this epidemic.
Linda Hepner is the mayor of Surrey