DTES, elections, Human Rights, politics, Vancouver

How Vancouver’s supervised illegal drug injection site is winning the PR battle

Vancouver’s Insite is making headlines again as a new study shows it has slashed fatal overdoses in Canada’s poorest postal code. With the federal government’s appeal to be heard by the Supreme Court this May, the program’s future is once again in jeopardy. Here are my thoughts after visiting the controversial injection site.

Photos courtesy of Vancouver Coastal Health

After touring Insite this week it is clear the operators are doing their best to win over the hearts and minds of Canadians skeptical of the harm reduction approach to drug addiction.

First-time visitors immediately notice the cleanliness, professionalism and transparency of the supervised injection site. In the main room, stainless steel shelves form 12 open booths that together service up to 1,000 users a day. The smell of cleaning supplies wafts through the Spartan rooms as site manager Darwin Fisher holds court.

Fisher is passionate about giving the addicts of Canada’s poorest postal code a voice in their own recovery. This method of mitigating the harmful conditions surround their addiction, and then allowing them to get the treatment they need seems to be working.

A recent study released by the provincial health officer, Dr. Perry Kendall, pointed to harm reduction services like Insite as helping lower the rate of HIV infections among injection drug users.

In a news release about the report Kendall said, “The recent decline in new HIV cases is encouraging, especially since a significant decrease has been seen amongst vulnerable populations like those who use injectable drugs. This decrease is more proof that Highly Active Anti-retroviral Therapy and other harm reduction services are working and should be expanded.”

In fact, every empirical study of infection rates among the people in the Downtown Eastside has come out in favour of Insite and its work. When talking to the media, Fisher wields these numbers like a sword in the face of a federal government hell-bent on shutting the service down.

Insite is as transparent as an entity run by three separate bodies can be. It is this transparency and an emphasis on empirical data that has been more effective in swaying public and political opinion than any preaching about the horrible circumstances of these addicts ever could.

Most taxpayers do not want to hear about the sad tales of abuse and trauma that precede a person’s gradual descent into the hell of addiction. What is much more important is the amount of money it costs to get a person off the street and into treatment. The amount of money it costs to process and care for a person with a skin infection from shooting up in the dank, dark and dirty alleyways of the Downtown Eastside.

Concrete numbers about the amount of money it is saving taxpayers are the best way Insite can gain further support, and perhaps one day expand their brand of harm reduction nationwide.

It may be a callous way to reach out for support, but Insite’s advocates know its $3 million annual oprating budget is miniscule compared to the overalls of illegal drug use.

The Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse found, in a 2002 study, abuse of illegal druges like heroin cost Canadians $8.2 billion annually. Along with alcohol and tobacco, illegal drug abuse cost taxpayers $8.8 billion in health care and $5.4 billion in policing this abuse.

Former mayor Larry Campbell helped get the initiative off the ground, and ever since these positive numbers have come in, civic and provincial politicians have taken note. Today, these politicians are loath to criticize Insite’s effectiveness in curbing infection and costly health problems in drug-addicted people.

Federally, things are much different. Initially the Martin government begrudgingly supported the facility, but Prime Minister Stephen Harper has fought tooth and nail to stop the money flow.

In order to fully understand the work of Insite, Harper should heed last year’s call of the B.C. Nurses’ Union and visit the facility himself.

Then, and only then, can he pass judgment on its role in Canadian society.

city council, DTES, homelessness, Vancouver

>Obvious News: Vancouver will still have hundreds of homeless people in 2015


                                         Chris Huggins (Flickr)/photo

Planning department shows city still has considerable challenges if it wants make good on mayor’s promise to end homelessness in the next decade.

A new report from city hall says 450 new housing units are needed to end homelessness in Vancouver by 2015.

City Manager Penny Ballem’s report garnered praise from councillors during a festive Lunar New Year session. Only Coun. Suzanne Anton questioned the projected shortfalls and the secrecy of the report.

“To me, my conclusion [from the report] was that 450 units will solve homelessness in Vancouver. Well… no,” Anton said. “450 units will not solve homelessness.”

                 Thomas Quine (Flickr)/photo
The report projects – despite the city’s partnership with BC Housing creating 14 new supportive housing sites by 2012 – the city will still be short hundreds of units by 2015. This shortfall will increase 750 units by 2020 to a total of 1,200 units if additional housing is not provided.
“Elimination of homelessness is quite realistic, it could be rolled back province-wide by an investment equivalent to the new stadium roof — $568 million,” said Coun. Geoff Meggs. “All that’s missing is political will.”

Anton, the lone councillor outside of Mayor Gregor Robertson’s ruling coalition, believes these numbers are greatly undervalued.

“There’s about 7,000 built now, so there really needs to be 3,000 more to properly accommodate all the people who are living [downtown],” Anton said. “I think the mayor was looking for a real political solution to his election promise.”

Anton was also disappointed with lack of transparency in the report. “I thought it was a disgrace to democracy that it was brought in that forum so that nobody had any notice of it.

 Coun. Suzanne Anton
“It was a PowerPoint

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and council didn’t even have it in front of them. There was no opportunity to properly challenge it or question it or prod it or to see what it actually meant,” Anton said. “This mayor is famous for his disinterest in hearing from people. And presenting it in this way so nobody could address the subject was very odd indeed.”

Coun. Tim Stevenson thinks the report — on which the city will hear from the public and report back to council by the end of April — and its compiling of concrete numbers is another step in a larger process of understanding Vancouver’s homeless began by previous administrations.

“I’ve been awaiting this report for a number of years and it is excellent in my opinion,” Stevenson said. It will certainly lead us into the future.”

The report focused on mapping the city’s total homeless population, supportive housing and rental units. The report claimed only 10 per cent of Vancouver’s homeless — largely single men — come from other provinces, dispelling a popular myth that many migrate to get away from cold winters further East.

The Community Services department will conduct another count of the city’s homeless population Mar. 16, 2011, as part of its annual report card on the issue.

The report stressed the need for 12 to 15 more supportive housing sites to close the eventual 1,200-unit gap by 2020.

“There’s no question that the only way to get adequate housing is for senior levels of government to help with the funding,” Anton said. “The best housing is when there’s partnerships with the city — which is usually land and facilitation services — BC Housing non-profit groups and the province.

“That’s what puts housing together right now.”

The report can be found here : http://vancouver.ca/ctyclerk/cclerk/20110201/documents/HousingandHomelessnessStrategy.pdf