British Columbia

Stable housing critical to kicking addiction say users, experts

CBC Radio's The Early Edition continues its coverage of the Downtown Eastside by examining the link between the housing crisis and the opioid epidemic.

'If people don't have housing, they move to survival mode'

Protesters march for affordable housing on Vancouver's Downtown Eastside in August. Many protesters were living in a homeless camp at Oppenheimer Park where drug use was rampant. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

Richard tried several addiction recovery programs before he kicked his opioid habit at the Union Gospel Mission on Vancouver's Downtown Eastside.

A major reason it worked this time, he says, was that the Mission's program offered him a welcoming place to stay.

Richard, who CBC has agreed to identify only by his first name, is an example of the link between the province's housing crisis and the opioid epidemic. The Union Gospel Mission (UGM) Men's Recovery Program provides supportive housing for up to two years while participants work on their sobriety, and many experts say it is this type of long-term support that is crucial for success. 

"We find if we can assure someone safe housing they then begin to feel safe and then they begin to deal with recovery issues," said Jack Wagner, the manager of the program. 

Current research points to trauma and social isolation as two main triggers for addiction. (CBC)

Current research points to trauma and social isolation as two main triggers for addiction, and Wagner says without housing, addicts more often than not "move into survival mode" and start using again "so they don't feel the pain."

"Without a sense of safety ... people don't do recovery work," said Wagner.

And Richard echoes that sentiment.

"This is what saved my life," he said. "It's just being in a building. You know you're in a safe place."

Sarah Blyth, co-founder of the Overdose Prevention Society which operates two overdose prevention sites on the Downtown Eastside, agrees homelessness and addiction can be like a chicken and egg scenario.

"When you get into detox and you get out, there is nowhere to go. There's no housing for you. You go back on the streets, even if you want to be successful," said Blythe. "It just creates a lack of hope for people."

Blyth said the Overdose Prevention Society set up their sites after so many people kept overdosing on the streets of the Downtown Eastside. She would like to see provincial and federal governments step in with more financial support for housing and addiction services.

Sarah Blyth, executive director of Vancouver's Overdose Prevention Society, says the provincial and federal governments need to do more to protect B.C.'s most vulnerable people. (Maryse Zeidler/CBC)

Across town, at St. Paul's Hospital on the city's west side, a doctor with front line addiction experience makes a strong medical case for providing addicts with stable housing.

Dr. Mark McLean, lead physician at St. Paul's Rapid Access Addiction Clinic (RAAC), said it's hard for recovery patients to follow their doctors' instructions and take their medications when they are supposed to if they are concerned about where their belongings are and where they're going to sleep at night.

The purpose of RAAC is to stabilize addicts, and after patients are discharged from acute care, they can stay at the Vancouver Police Foundation Transitional Care Center to keep working on their recovery. But only for up to 30 days.

The sooner a patient can get into a longer term housing situation, the more likely they are to be successful," said McLean.

But, he said, even a limited amount of time can help when patients are fragile and perhaps waiting to start methadone treatment.

"It's very important for these patients to be away from the Downtown Eastside," said McLean.

To hear interviews with Richard, Jack Wagner and Mark McLean, click on the audio link below:

Join The Early Edition's Stephen QuinnCBC Vancouver News at 6's Mike Killeen and Anita Bathe at the Woodwards Courtyard on Saturday, Sept. 7 at noon for Despair, Addiction, Poverty: When is Enough Enough? a free public town hall looking at how overdose deaths, homelessness and mental illness are affecting the Downtown Eastside and communities across B.C.

With files from Tara Henley and The Early Edition


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