Friends and saviours: Peer program targets overdose among Ottawa's homeless

A unique program in downtown Ottawa is bringing safe injection paraphernalia directly to drug users living on the streets, help that's hand-delivered by their friends and peers.

Overdose prevention program staffed by recovering addicts who know Ottawa's streets, and the people they help

Sue Latreille and JP LeBlanc work six-hour shifts walking the streets of downtown Ottawa, especially near 'cheque day' and when a batch of bad drugs is known to be in circulation. (Jennifer Beard/CBC)

A unique program in downtown Ottawa is bringing safe injection paraphernalia directly to the drug users living on the streets, help that's hand-delivered by their friends and peers.

Ottawa Inner City Health, a non-profit organization aimed at improving access to health care for the chronically homeless, set up the peer overdose prevention team in May when drug overdoses started to spike in the downtown core.

"We use our peer workers to patrol the hotspot areas around downtown to check for people who are overdosing, and to hand out equipment that people might need," said Anne Marie Hopkins of Ottawa Inner City Health.

The overdose prevention team carries naloxone kits, water, safe injection gear, lighters and alcohol swabs in their backpacks. (Christian Patry/CBC)
That equipment includes naloxone kits, pipes, water and clean needles — the essential tools of the harm reduction trade.

What's unique about this program is the people who are being paid to hand out the gear  — recovering addicts and people who used to live on the streets.

Two-person teams work six-hour shifts walking around the ByWard Market and Lowertown looking for drug hotspots, also known as shooting galleries. So far, Ottawa Inner City Health has hired seven people, referred to them by word of mouth, to act as peer outreach workers on the overdose prevention team.

The teams are busiest during the five days around "cheque day," when social assistance payments are deposited into bank accounts, and when drug use is at its peak. They're also called out when a bad batch of drugs is known to be on the streets.

A tour with the peer overdose prevention team

3 years ago
A unique program in downtown Ottawa is bringing safe injection paraphernalia directly to drug users living on the streets, help that's hand-delivered by their friends and peers. 4:35

'It gives me hope'

JP LeBlanc and Sue Latreille were hired when the program started in May. This new job has been a life-changer for both of them.

I think a lot of people would be dead if it wasn't for this right now.- Sarah Gillis

"It makes me want to wake up in the morning and not think what I have to do to struggle to get though the day," said Latreille. "It gives me hope in life for me and other people."

As Latreille and LeBlanc scan the nooks and crannies of the ByWard Market, they often bump into friends who greet them by name, and sometimes with warm hugs.

Latreille, who doesn't want to disclose her exact age but said she is in her 50s, is a tiny woman with a strong personality and a determination to get things done. Her backpack, filled with gear, seems to weigh nearly as much as she does.

LeBlanc, 44, works out every day and is fit and lean. He's clearly well-liked by the people he passes while he walks his beat in the Market.

JP LeBlanc, 44, has been working with the overdose prevention team since it started in May 2017. (Jennifer Beard/CBC)

Dark places

Both Latreille and LeBlanc know what it's like to have a drug addiction and live on the streets of downtown Ottawa.

"I've had quite a history with drugs. It's led me to some very dark, deep and dark places. I've been in jail a lot because of it," said LeBlanc. "But, that's all changed now."

In 2011 LeBlanc's girlfriend, who was also doing drugs at the time, died in his arms. 

"She had endocarditis, which is a bacterial infection from shooting drugs, from shooting dirty drugs. And she got two of her valves replaced on her heart and when she came home, she wasn't strong enough and she kept using and it just happened," said LeBlanc.

"She died at home, yep, looking in my eyes."

Latreille also battles addiction.

"There probably isn't a drug I haven't done in my life.... I still struggle ... but I'm OK at where I'm at," said Latreille.

Their goal is to prevent overdoses, and they've already racked up wins. On their first night working together, Latreille and LeBlanc managed to save the life of a man who was overdosing.

"It was meant to be that we were there ... the guy just dropped," said LeBlanc. "It was just like, he was gone and then he was there. It was awesome ... it is a good feeling."

Since then, the pair has handed out over 100 naloxone kits and administered the antidote to several people, including some friends.

Sue Latreille says this job has given her hope in life and makes her want to wake up in the morning. (Jennifer Beard/CBC)

'You are not being judged'

In the parking lot of the Shepherds of Good Hope, LeBlanc and Latreille offer up gear to some regular clients. Latreille gives quick naloxone training to Sarah Gillis, but it turns out she's used the kits many times before.

Gillis, 34, has been living on and off the streets for 15 years and is addicted to opiates and crack cocaine.

"It's more comfortable because you know you are not being judged, and they know everything that's going on with you ... and, if you are overdosing it's more comfortable to know that they are there rather than the police," Gillis said.

Since the peer program started Gillis has used several naloxone kits given to her by the peer overdose team.

"I find this program very helpful. I think a lot of people would be dead if it wasn't for this right now."

Sarah Gillis, 34, has used several naloxone kits given to her by the peer overdose prevention team. (Jennifer Beard/CBC)

Bed checks at Shepherds

While LeBlanc and Latreille are walking around the market, another team of peers is working the halls of the Shepherds of Good Hope.

These workers knock on the dorm doors and check the beds to make sure the people in them are still alive.

"[They're] just making sure everyone is OK, breathing," said Latreille. "That is what the checks are for. And visiting, too. A friendly face is nice."

The bed checks used to take place once an hour, but since fentanyl-laced drugs began turning up last spring, the checks are now done every 15 minutes. 

Dorm beds at the Shepherds of Good Hope are checked every 15 minutes to make sure no one has overdosed. (Pierre Paul Couture/CBC)

'Always ready to work"

Anne Marie Hopkins is coordinator of the peer overdose prevention program, which she believes is the only one of its kind in Canada.

Hopkins said there's a different dynamic between peers than there is between drug users and other front-line workers.

"The peers find out a lot about where people are using and the patterns and what kind of drugs are going around, and they are able to spread that information," Hopkins said.

"Some of the peers used to use with these people years ago or once upon a time. So, it's people they really trust and people that they want help from."

Anne Marie Hopkins, centre, the supervisor of peer outreach services at Ottawa Inner City Health, works closely with Latreille and LeBlanc. (Christian Patry/CBC)
Hopkins said the program is paying off,  but its future relies on funding. For now, it's operating until December with money from Ottawa Public Health.

For now, LeBlanc and Latreille show up for work with a smile and determination to help their friends and save more lives.

"It's a better high than any drug would ever give you coming out here to do this," said Latreille.