As an outreach worker in Thunder Bay, Kyle Lees actively engages with drug users, in an effort to keep them safe.

He says there's a opiate crisis in the city, and it's bad.

"I don't want to scare anybody, but it's as bad as I've ever seen it, certainly," said Lees.

Thunder Bay region has the highest rate of opioid related deaths in the province for a three-year period, from 2013-2016, according to research by the Ontario Drug Policy Research Network.

Lees works at Elevate NWO, a healthcare organization that provides harm reduction services, as well as information about HIV and Hepatitis C — diseases that can be transmitted through intravenous drug use. 

As an outreach worker, Lees spends a lot of time in the community.

"A good portion of what I do is walking the streets, giving out not only food and water, but safe use harm reduction equipment: inhalation kits, injection kits."

'Staggering' rise in opiate use

The rise in opiate drug use in Thunder Bay over the past decade has been "absolutely staggering," said Elevate NWO executive director Holly Gauvin, adding that organizations like hers are struggling to keep up.

"We're outstripping the resources that we have to address it." 

To keep people safe, outreach workers such as Lees have to reach not only drug users, but their friends and family, she said.

"If you think about it, a person who's in the grips of an overdose crisis can't inject themselves [with naloxone], it's the people that surround them that we also need to reach. And so that takes time, that takes resources, that takes relationships, and all of that takes money." 

A provincial announcement this week of $222 million in additional funding for harm reduction services is a "good start," said Gauvin, as long as that money flows down to the front line organizations that need it the most. 

Understanding and empathy

Lees also spends a great deal of time educating, both people who use drugs, and people who don't. He wants to move beyond the stigma of drug use, and see people treat each other with more understanding and empathy.

"People will see someone passed out, but they don't know that person's life story. They don't know what kind of day that person has had, that's just 'someone else'... but there's a lot of stuff that leads up to that point. There's a lifetime of difficult things that they're trying to cope with."

"They're everybody... that's the thing, when it comes to health crises, you always think it's someone else's problem — it's the 'other'— but it's everybody. It's people that you know, it's your friends, it's your family," said Lees.

'You could save someone's life'

Lees also stresses the value of getting trained on how to use a naloxone kit, which can temporarily reverse an overdose.

"It's a 10, 15 minute training [program] — you got a kit, you could save someone's life."