In the midst of a drug overdose crisis stemming from a surge in fentanyl on the streets, Vancouver Fire & Rescue Services recognized a dozen individuals for acts of courage and bravery this week at city hall.
Several of the commendation recipients had stepped in to prevent overdose deaths by administering the anti-opioid naloxone — also known by its brand name, Narcan.
But along with the individuals, one organization was named — the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users, or VANDU.
The grassroots group of hard drug users and former drug users is known for activism around harm reduction policy and resources on Vancouver's Downtown Eastside.
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At various points in the group's nearly 20-year history, it's been a thorn in the side of officials. Members have interrupted health board meetings and dragged a mock coffin right into Vancouver City Council.
But on Wednesday at city hall they were being honoured for ongoing community care.
"It feels really good," said VANDU board member and former drug user Hugh Lampkin, who was at the ceremony to accept the commendation.
"I've heard a lot of stories," he said. "It was quite rough in the beginning, a lot of barriers, it was basically an uphill go at it."
VANDU staff member Aiyanas Ormond has been with the group for six years, but he's been organizing in the community since VANDU's early days.
"I knew VANDU in terms of being a grassroots, militant organization that had really ... been able to make substantive changes down here," he said. "Definitely militant tactics are part of the history and practice of this organization."
But the group has been able to thrive, in large part due to the funding it receives from Vancouver Coastal Health.
Ormond notes that VANDU has worked closely with city officials on numerous occasions, notably in creating a safer neighbourhood for pedestrians by getting the speed limit on Hastings Street lowered to 30 km/h and adding a crosswalk.
"We have a long history of both antagonism and collaboration with the city," he said.
Preventing overdose deaths
Volunteers at VANDU have been administering naloxone for about five years, according to Lampkin. They were years ahead of Vancouver Fire & Rescue Services, which began putting the anti-opioid in the hands of firefighters in February.
Fire Chief John McKearney said crews have used the injections to thwart an overdose about 60 times now.
"It's proven to be a success. Having the tools to revive somebody — the right tools — has made such a huge difference," he said after the ceremony on Wednesday.
According to Ormond, Lampkin has intervened in more drug overdoses than anyone in the community.
At VANDU, most members know what to do if someone's overdosing. There are naloxone training sessions once a month, and the anti-opioid is distributed at the office — along with clean needles and pipes.
Volunteer Dianne Brisson was working at VANDU's front desk on Friday. Along with distributing supplies and fresh fruit, her job was to make sure nobody overdosed in the washrooms.
"A lot of them do [use drugs in there]. They go in there. It's a safe area, so a lot of 'em feel safer than being out on the street," she said.
Ormond chimed in to say the official policy is people are allowed five minutes in the bathroom.
"We don't ask them what they're doing in there," he said.
Brisson uses crack and methamphetamine — both stimulants unaffected by naloxone. But she usually carries the drug wherever she goes. She's never administered it herself, but has handed about a dozen doses to other people in emergencies.
"I feel nervous when I go out there and I don't have one," she said.
A vulnerable population
McKearney said firefighters have looked to groups like VANDU that have taken the lead on issues like overdose interventions. But he adds that VANDU has also been exemplary in how to deal with a vulnerable population on the fringes of society.
"It's not just injecting naloxone, it's being skilled and able to deal with mental health issues, being eyes and ears for when our citizens who are homeless in some cases or really struggling, how can we support and make sure they stay safer," he said.
"It's nice to be recognized for doing the naloxone stuff and the fact that our members are out there every day actually helping and supporting each other," said Ormond.
For Lampkin, who describes a pivotal, life-changing moment during a VANDU meeting about 10 years ago that restored his will to live, the group's greatest strength is empowering its members — and getting recognition from the Vancouver Fire & Rescue Services is validation.
"Because for us, that's what it's about, to help people change their lives and to empower people to be made feel part of the community and not feel outcast," he said.
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