'Help us': Cluster of overdoses prompts call for help by Grande Prairie outreach groups

Grande Prairie outreach groups say their clients are reeling following three overdoses in less than 24 hours on Wednesday.

RCMP responded to three reports of overdoses within 24 hours this week

Three people overdosed before noon Wednesday at St. Lawrence Centre, a homeless drop-in shelter in Grande Prairie, said founder Jared Gossen. (Facebook/Saint Lawrence Centre)

Two words, spray-painted in the grass: Help us.

Jared Gossen said he discovered the message Wednesday, following the third overdose in 24 hours near the homeless drop-in shelter he founded four years ago in Grande Prairie.

"We're doing so much, but we know that there's glaring gaps in how people who use drugs are being supported in Grande Prairie," Gossen told CBC News Thursday.

"There's still so much more to do and that was evident in the spray paint ... All of those emotions and feelings just kind of came crashing down when I saw that in the grass."

The two men and one woman who overdosed Wednesday survived, Gossen said.

All three recovered after receiving injections of naloxone, a life-saving drug that can temporarily reverse the effects of an opioid overdose.

Gossen shared a picture of the spray-painted cry for help on Facebook and said he hopes it spurs action in the community.

"Don't ask 'Why the drug use?' " he said in the post. "Ask 'Why the pain?' "

Specifically, Gossen said he wants the city to focus on treatment centres and affordable housing options for people who struggle with addiction. 

"There needs to be more help for people ... There needs to be so much more of it," he said.

"Through conversations we've been having in the community, I feel like for the first time Grande Prairie is able to forget about worrying about a moral judgment on drug-using behaviour."

Grande Prairie RCMP spokesperson Const. Melanie McIntosh confirmed officers responded to three reports of overdoses in the city on Wednesday.

McIntosh said there is no way of knowing what type of drugs were involved without testing the people who overdosed.

Uncontrolled substances can be contaminated with traces of dangerous drugs such as fentanyl and carfentanil, she added.

"The conditions under which these illegal drugs are processed are not controlled," McIntosh said. "These products can lead to serious injury and in some cases death."

She encouraged people — regardless of whether or not they use drugs — to familiarize themselves with the signs of an overdose, such as unresponsiveness, gurgling, trouble breathing and blue nails or lips. 

"If you are in the presence of someone you feel is suffering from an overdose, please call 911 immediately."

Naloxone 'going out like candy'

The recent spike in overdoses demonstrates the need for a supervised drug consumption site in the city, said Melissa Byers, executive director of HIV North in Grande Prairie.

"It does definitely make me wish that we had a site up and operational probably a year ago," Byers said.

Her non-profit outreach group has applied for federal permission to open a mobile site for supervised drug use by the end of 2018.

The sudden jump in overdoses does not necessarily reflect an increase in drug use, Byers said. Sometimes, "bad batches" of dangerously potent drugs can circulate in a community and trigger clusters of overdoses.

Offering users a safe, sterile and supervised place to take their drugs would allow outreach workers to respond quickly to any overdoses, Byers said.

HIV North hands out free naloxone kits at overdose hot spots in Grande Prairie, including St. Lawrence Centre.

Byers said the kits are "going out like candy," but added it isn't enough to stop what she described as a growing crisis.

"We have a lot of Band-Aid solutions that are working and they're keeping people alive but it's not enough because it keeps happening," she said. "We're just continually spinning our wheels and we don't know how to help.

"It's really difficult because the drug crisis that we're seeing, it's just basically like if we get traction one day the traction's gone the next."

'Absolutely OK to ask for help'

Alberta Health Services offers numerous addiction-related resources, including treatment options unique to Grande Prairie such as the Opioid Dependency Program and the Northern Addictions Centre.

"It's important for those who are struggling with addiction to know that it's absolutely OK to ask for help," said Stacy Greening, senior operating officer of addiction and mental health for northern Alberta.

The services are not exclusive to opioid addiction, Greening said.

"While there's been a lot of focus on opioids lately, that doesn't mean that the use of other drugs including crystal methamphetamine is declining," Greening said.

"Addiction is complicated and it can affect everyone in a family or close community and can affect individuals for the rest of their life."

She encouraged anyone trying to overcome an addiction to call Healthlink, a free provincial line for non-emergency health advice from a registered nurse.



Zoe Todd

Video Journalist

Zoe Todd is a CBC video journalist based in Alberta, filing videos and stories for web, radio and TV.