Mobile overdose prevention RV aims to save lives in Winnipeg
Sunshine House trying to raise $105K for testing equipment to use in RV
A Winnipeg organization is working to prevent overdoses and let people know what's really in the substances they're using — and they want to do all that out of a new RV.
Sunshine House recently bought the vehicle, which will one day serve as a mobile overdose prevention site five to six nights a week for people who use drugs in Winnipeg's Central, West End, North End and Point Douglas communities.
Before it can launch, the organization needs to raise money to pay for equipment to confirm drug samples have no contaminants.
Levi Foy, the executive director of Sunshine House, says people are using drugs all over Manitoba, including in public washrooms, restaurants and libraries, but the RV will serve as a safer place.
"They can avoid things like rushing, their equipment can be disposed of and we can be able to monitor," they told CBC Manitoba's Faith Fundal on Up to Speed on Monday.
"In the event of an overdose, we can be able to just intervene and provide kind of direct assistance and hopefully reversing much of the effects of overdose and preventing death."
Unlike supervised consumption sites, an overdose prevention site won't have a team of health-care workers. It's a bit more "bare bones," Foy said, but the mobile site workers will have naloxone and a good knowledge of services people can access if they need additional help.
"We'll be able to provide support into referring into those programs or just being a first contact point," Foy said, and "showing people how … they can access the things that they might need."
Funding for programming on the RV is coming from Health Canada, but Sunshine House is covering the costs of the vehicle itself.
The organization still needs roughly $105,000 to buy specialized drug testing equipment that can show exactly what's in a substance.
"That way folks can make informed decisions about how they're going to use, or know that if they're using this particular substance, that it could mean there's a lot more risks associated," Foy explained.
"That's a risk that people take every day when they're using unregulated substances, so for people to be able to make informed decisions will help them save lives or maybe take some preventative steps."
Drug poisoning deaths preventable
More and more Manitobans are dying because of a poisoned drug supply, the Manitoba Harm Reduction Network says.
Prior to the pandemic, there were about 200 deaths due to drug poisoning.
That number doubled in 2021 to 407 deaths, and 2022 is on track to break that tragic record, said Jonny Mexico, the network co-ordinator for Winnipeg with the MHRN.
"Every one of those deaths is preventable," they said.
Community members have called for more harm reduction services year over year to help keep people alive, Mexico said.
"Those are 407 children, those are kids of people, those are aunties, those are uncles, those are mothers, those are fathers, those are brothers and sisters. Those are all people, and they are missed deeply by the folks who love and care for them," Mexico said.
"This type of a service is going to be able to help prevent some of those deaths."
Manitoba is the only province west of Quebec that doesn't have a formal, supervised consumption site, according to the MHRN.
MLA Uzoma Asagwara (Union Station ) spoke at a fundraiser for Sunshine House on Friday to offer support for the RV and call on the provincial government to do more to support harm reduction.
"It's sending a very clear message to all levels of government that this kind of effort needs to be funded, needs to be funded sustainably and needs to be happening at a grassroots level," the Opposition NDP MLA said.
Asagwara pointed to the lack of provincial funding for Sunshine House's overdose prevention RV.
"There is a big gap, and at the provincial level of government, there's a serious lack of investment and commitment to harm reduction, and quite frankly to saving lives."
Sarah Guillemard, minister of Mental Health and Community Wellness, said in a statement on Tuesday evening that the province wasn't consulted or included in discussions on plans for Sunshine House's overdose prevention vehicle.
She added that the province has spent roughly $58 million on mental health, substance use and addictions services since 2019, and any further spending will be guided by evidence-based models.
"Jurisdictions that have formalized consumption sites are not seeing reductions in drug use or overdose deaths. Our government will continue to analyze the outcomes and risks of harm reduction initiatives and review approaches used elsewhere," Guillemard said in an emailed statement.
"We need to learn what model of harm reduction works best for Manitobans, and this is what our government is doing."
Health Canada states on its website that supervised consumption sites provide a safe, clean space for people to use drugs, help prevent accidental overdoses and reduces the spread of infectious diseases, such as HIV.
- An earlier version of this story said the bulk of the funding for the RV came from Health Canada. In fact, funding for programming on the RV is coming from Health Canada, but Sunshine House is covering the costs of the vehicle itself.Jul 12, 2022 11:46 AM CT