British Columbia·In Depth

'Militant' Vancouver drug user group gets nod from city officials

The Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users was honoured with a commendation for the Vancouver Fire &Rescue Services at city hall this week for its ongoing community care.

VANDU is a group of drug users in the Downtown Eastside known for activism and community support

Members of VANDU are honoured with a commendation by the Vancouver Fire & Rescue Services at a ceremony at city hall on Wednesday. (Rafferty Baker/CBC)

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.

A pile of needles and sanitary wipes lies on the wet sidewalk on Hastings Street in Vancouver. (Rafferty Baker/CBC)

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 board member Hugh Lampkin says a meeting at VANDU about 10 years ago changed his life. "It was the greatest moment in my life," he said. (Rafferty Baker/CBC)

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."

VANDU staff member Aiyanas Ormond wears a Che Guevera T-shirt in the VANDU office. (Rafferty Baker/CBC)

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.

Vancouver Fire Chief John McKearney says groups like VANDU have shown leadership in the Downtown Eastside, especially as an overdose crisis rages. (Rafferty Baker/CBC)

"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.

VANDU board member Malcolm Tourangeau cuts pieces of tubing to serve as clean pipes for drug users using crack and fentanyl. (Rafferty Baker/CBC)

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.

Dianne Brisson, 50, volunteers at VANDU. She was working the front desk on Friday. (Rafferty Baker/CBC)

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.

Drug use supplies are ready for users at VANDU's office on East Hastings Street. Meanwhile, the Western Aboriginal Harm Reduction Society is meeting to discuss local issues. (Rafferty Baker/CBC)

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.

Follow Rafferty Baker on Twitter: @raffertybaker