Pop-up supervised injection site hits Surrey streets

Residents of Surrey's Whalley neighbourhood woke up to a pop-up supervised injection site this morning, courtesy of advocacy groups who want a solution to the city's ongoing opioid overdose problem.

Supervised consumption the best way to get addicts treatment, say organizers

Harm reduction supplies were provided to users of today's pop-up supervised injection site in Surrey. (Jared Thomas/CBC)

Residents of Surrey's Whalley neighbourhood woke up to a pop-up supervised injection site this morning, courtesy of advocacy groups who want a solution to the city's ongoing opioid overdose problem.

The site — set up on 135A Street on Wednesday — was a collaboration between the B.C./Yukon Association of Drug War Survivors and the Portland Hotel Society.

Russ Maynard, research and policy manager at the Portland Hotel Society, said supervised injection sites prevent infection and deaths due to overdose, as well as provide dignity for a vulnerable and often-overlooked population.

"All we're doing is providing supervision while they do what they're going to do anyway in a cleaner, safer environment," Maynard said. "Most importantly, they're being treated like the people that they are."

The site consisted of several tents with chairs and tables, partitions for privacy, sterilized needles and medical supplies. They also had the overdose antidote drug, naloxone, available.

A volunteer physician was present on site, and Maynard said other staff had extensive experience dealing with overdoses.

Sites connect addicts with treatment

Maynard said the one-day event is an attempt to keep policy-makers talking about the overdose crisis and to find a solution.

Russ Maynard says supervised injection sites are the most effective way to get drug users into treatment. (Jared Thomas/CBC)

He said supervised injection sites are not necessarily the solution on their own, but they prevent deaths and connect street-dwelling drug users with treatment. He pointed to the success of Insite, a supervised injection site on Vancouver's Downtown Eastside.

"Insite has a detox above it, and that detox can't keep up with the demand for services," Maynard said. "It's far and away the most successful model we have to get people into treatment."

Surrey Mayor Linda Hepner has expressed reservations about idea of a standalone safe injection site in her city. Maynard said he believes the mayor's position comes from a place of concern for her constituents, but invited her to tour the Insite facility herself, as well as related housing and recovery efforts.

Despite the mayor's stance, Maynard said today's site didn't encounter any resistance from police. In fact, he said local RCMP were very friendly, introducing themselves right away.

Sites provide safety, dignity

Sarah Blyth, a site volunteer who has worked in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside for 10 years, said supervised injection sites save money by preventing people from requiring urgent medical treatment for overdoses.

She also said the access to treatment provides a second chance for people who might not otherwise get one.

"It's not worth losing a teenager's life by a mistake they've made," Blyth said. "They can change their lives."

Doug Nickerson stands on 135A Street in Surrey in 2016. (Jared Thomas/CBC)

Also present at the site was Doug Nickerson, who has become something of an unofficial harm reduction provider for his fellow Whalley residents, preventing about 80 deaths due to overdose since the Fraser Health Authority outfitted him with a naloxone kit.

Nickerson says safe injection sites make a world of difference for their users.

"They don't have to look over their shoulders," he said. "[On the street], you're at the mercy of your friends and passersby."

"Insite has an awesome record. So why don't we have one here yet? It saves lives."

With files from Jared Thomas and CBC Radio One's On the Coast.