A look inside Red Deer's overdose prevention site

The overdose prevention site is a temporary measure put in place by Health Minister Sarah Hoffman. It operates out of a trailer in the parking lot of Safe Harbour.

‘We’re all people. We’re all daughters, sons, mothers and fathers’

Tomasina Ballentyne started using Dilaudid when she was prescribed the drug after breaking her arm. (Trevor Wilson/CBC)

Walk through the doors of Red Deer's overdose prevention site on any given day, and more likely than not you'll find all four cubicles occupied.

In one booth, a woman swirls a ball of bright yellow powder around with the tip of a needle.

Tomasina Ballentyne calls the powder "dillies," a street name for Dilaudid, an opioid two to eight times stronger than morphine.

Ballentyne started using Dilaudid when she was prescribed it after breaking her arm.

Ballentyne, who is in her 30s, uses her drugs at the site for the sense of security it gives her.

"It's dangerous out there. I can freeze to death or I could overdose and have nobody to help me," she said.

Ballentyne, who is in her 30s, uses her drugs at the site for the sense of security it gives her. (Trevor Wilson/CBC)

The overdose prevention site is a temporary measure put in place by Health Minister Sarah Hoffman to run for one year starting Oct. 1, 2018.

The site, a trailer in the parking lot of Safe Harbour, a Red Deer group offering support to those experiencing homelessness, is run by the Turning Point Society of Central Alberta. It's open 24 hours a day.

Turning Point hopes to open a permanent site in October down the street in the Railyards area.

The nurses who monitor Ballentyne and the other clients try to make it a safe and supportive environment. They sit at their stations nearby, ready when called upon to bring fruit snacks, water, supplies or just to talk.

"A lot of people end up feeling really alone and really disheartened by the loss that comes with substance use and so we're trying to give them a place where they feel safe and respected," said Sarah Fleck, clinical manager at the overdose prevention site.

Watch: How Red Deer's supervised consumption services are impacting community members

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People who would normally use drugs alone or outdoors are able to use inside, where it's warm and there's somebody to respond immediately if medical assistance is needed.

The site aims to prevent overdose fatalities but Fleck said it does much more.

"A lot of the feedback that we receive is, 'This is the only place where I feel like I can be myself or where I feel like I'm treated as a human being,'" Fleck said.

Nurses at the site work to develop relationships with the clients and the openness fostered in the trailer leads to conversations about mental health, daily struggles and services people can access.

Clients also teach the nurses about the drugs currently on the streets and their potency, including which are likely to lead to an overdose.

"When people feel connected, connection can evoke feelings of wanting to change and wanting to move forward with their lives," Fleck said.

That sentiment rings true for Ballentyne.

"I finally want to get help or be somewhere I think is safe," she said.

"I need to be somewhere I can just have a few days where I can sleep and be safe and figure out what the heck I'm going to do."

Community members who use the overdose prevention site select their supplies, including needles, before using one of the four booths for an hour. (Trevor Wilson/CBC)

The rules state those coming to the site can use a booth for one hour, then spend up to 15 minutes in a monitoring room, but they are not strictly enforced.

"We let people stay there as long as they want because we recognize that there's not a lot of places for people to be," Fleck said.

'A chance'

Craig Rombain and Marie Myers regularly use drugs at the site.

Each has dealt with the trauma of witnessing friends overdose and trying to save them.

Myers wonders if her boyfriend would still be alive if the service had been in place a year ago.

"We were both using in the community, far away from any naloxone and I went to go get help and he died," Myers said.

"The chance for us to be using in a safe place like this … that's a chance I would love to have had," she said. 

The service helps him maintain his sanity, Rombain said.

"I seem to only be able to draw a picture in my head of what friends would look like dead. Blue lips, grey face and that's how I see them now," Rombain said. "I think [the overdose prevention site] is better equipped to deal with this."

Rombain and Myers are both aware of the risks of opioid use.

I think people don't know what they're against.- Marie Myers

"I lived a functional life before I started using drugs," Myers said.

She worked in a daycare and a seniors' lodge before she was diagnosed with cancer. Myers was prescribed opioids for pain management and became addicted.

"I don't really think people are as serious as they should be about [what's happening]. It's probably the worst thing that Alberta has had to deal with in a very long time," she said.

Myers knows there are residents and businesses who don't want them using drugs in the neighbourhood. She'd like to see more education about the opioid crisis.

"I think people don't know what they're against," Myers said.

"We're all people. We're all daughters, sons, mothers and fathers."


Emily Rendell-Watson is an Edmonton-based journalist who shares stories for web, radio and television. She joined CBC Edmonton in 2017. You can reach her at emily.rendell-watson@cbc.ca.


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