British Columbia

Drug user advocate hopes for 'real' action from overdose task force

Karen Ward, a Downtown Eastside resident and drug user advocate, spent a long night scouring the streets and trying to prevent a spike of drug overdose deaths on the last so-called Welfare Wednesday of the year.

Karen Ward searches alleys for overdose victims on last Welfare Wednesday of 2018

Karen Ward, a Downtown Eastside resident and drug user advocate, spent the night checking in on people living on the street to try to prevent a higher number of overdoses following the last so-called Welfare Wednesday of the year. (Gian-Paolo Mendoza/CBC)

Karen Ward spent a long night Wednesday scouring the streets and alleys of the Downtown Eastside, trying to prevent a spike in drug overdose deaths.

It was the last so-called Welfare Wednesday of the year. The number of overdoses tends to increase the day income assistance cheques are handed out.

"I'm just keeping an eye out for people who aren't easily found," said Ward, a resident of the neighbourhood and a long-time drug user advocate.

A former board member with the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users, Ward has been consulted for a number of reports tackling the overdose crisis.  

Karen Ward patrolled the streets of the Downtown Eastside on Wednesday night. (Gian-Paolo Mendoza/CBC)

She was out the evening before city council votes on whether to approve recommendations made by Vancouver Mayor Kennedy Stewart's overdose emergency task force.

One of the task force's suggestions is to open a storefront where people can access a clean drug supply — something Ward says can't come soon enough.

"I'm hopeful that [it] will find a physical home," Ward said.

"But it has to be real — I don't want to 'investigate it' or 'check into the feasibility.' I want it to be real."

'We need some accountability'

In 2017, more than 1,400 people died of an illicit drug overdose in the province and the numbers for this year are expected to be similar. It's estimated that one person dies of an overdose in Vancouver every day, and four across B.C.

The entire drug supply in the city is out of control, Ward said.

"You've got no idea what people are using and nobody does," Ward said.

"We have to stop this from happening. We have to find out why it happens. We need some accountability."

Kevin Thompson is a peer responder and helps people overdosing around the Downtown Eastside. (Gian-Paolo Mendoza/CBC)

Another recommendation Ward wants to see is better support and pay for peer responders — current or former drug users who help support other drug users to prevent overdose deaths. 

"They are saving lives that nobody is," said Ward. 

"[But they are paid] less than acceptable wages."

Kevin Thompson is one of those peer responders. He was also out on Wednesday night, and crossed paths with Ward. 

"I've been dealing with outside overdoses in the alley here [north of Hastings and Carrall streets] for three years," he said.

"We haven't lost any of them."

Thompson has also worked at other overdose prevention sites around the Lower Mainland. 

"I've been fighting since day one [for more wages]," Thompson said, who pointed out that it's possible to make more money serving drinks than saving lives in the streets. 

"I've delivered a baby in the alley here, I've been to three stabbings where the person was gong to die — I can go on and on." 

The task force report goes before council on Thursday.

Karen Ward, a Downtown Eastside resident and drug user advocate, spent a long night scouring the streets and trying to prevent a spike of drug overdose deaths on the last so-called Welfare Wednesday of the year. 10:38

With files from Gian-Paolo Mendoza and The Early Edition

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