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Urgent need for detox, treatment centres: Burnaby Community Action Team

175 people died of overdose and drug toxicity in BC in September

Burnaby Community Action Team (BCAT) held an overdose awareness event at Burnaby Public Library, Bob Prittie, Metrotown on Oct. 25. Team members occupied the new community room at the library where they had donuts, coffee, and informational resources available for anyone passing by as well as people with substance use issues. The purpose of the event, according to peer coordinator Hedy Wolff, was to spread awareness and educate the public about the fentanyl crisis. 

We’re spreading the word about the stigma of substance use disorders that individuals go through. The less stigma regarding drug use, the more people will step out and ask for help…Because it’s so stigmatized, people are ashamed to ask for help,” Wolff told the Beacon. 

Wolff and other team members said over 55% of overdose deaths in Burnaby occur indoors. The majority of those affected are males aged 29-50 and they represent approximately 70% of overdose deaths. BCAT team members also spoke about the existence of a hidden population with substance use issues who do not fit the usual stereotypes of people with substance use disorders. They gave examples of casual users and even students who resort to drugs to stay awake longer or to relax while studying. Even occasional users are not safe from the danger of overdose, said Wolff. “The drug supply is heavily contaminated with fentanyl, so it’s affecting all kinds of drug users,” she said.  

BCAT members. Community Action Initiative (CAI).

Community organizations such as BCAT are also struggling and lack resources. “For our organization one barrier we have is funding,” Wolff said. She added that several BCAT outreach programs will not continue in 2024 due to a lack of funding. 

Another issue the BCAT team mentioned was the urgent need for more treatment spaces and clinics. This echoes what Carol-Ann Flanagan, executive director of the Society to End Homelessness in Burnaby said at the city council meeting on Oct. 16: “When someone has an addiction issue, and they want to get treatment, there’s a very small window that they’ll take, when they’ll say yes, I’ll go for treatment. Except that there’s no treatment space, there’s nothing…We do need to have more treatment space here in Burnaby.”

Wolff said Burnaby needs a hub where people experiencing homelessness can find support and those with substance use issues can start their journey toward treatment and wellness. “Progressive Housing had a hub where people who are houseless could go, use the kitchen, there’s a washer and dryer there, a computer, but due to funding that’s now obsolete. That was the only thing we had, really,” Wolff said. The Progressive Housing hub, Wolff said, also had other advantages for unhoused people. “Say for example they want to get well, they want to go to detox or go to treatment, you need to have a phone, some people ask for addresses. There’s huge barriers if you’re houseless,” she said. At the hub, workers could help those who needed help in starting the process necessary for treatment and connecting them with services. 

Wolff also said Burnaby needs more treatment clinics for women only. “We really need a detox–or two. Nowadays with the fentanyl crisis, one goes through a terrible withdrawal, and the treatment centre will not take an individual unless you’ve gone through that process and stabilized and then you can start your healing process. In the Lower Mainland there’s maybe only three detox centres,” Wolff added. Some of the detox centres have approximately 30 beds, which is insufficient to meet demand, she said. 

BCAT peer coordinator Hedy Wolff at Burnaby Public Library, Bob Prittie Metrotown. Lubna El Elaimy

When it comes to treatment access, there are even greater barriers. “You have to be placed on a waiting list, so say if you’re houseless, you’ve got to call every day. How do you do that?” Wolff said. She added that the window to get well is usually very narrow, and when people have to wait for weeks or months to access treatment, there is a real risk “they could be dead by then.” 

Peer support workers provide an important bridge between people struggling with substance use and the medical system. Wolff is one of a group of people providing much-needed peer support. “When someone has a substance use disorder, your world becomes very small. In your environment, you’re dealing with people in the same boat. So there aren’t many other points of reference. What’s nice is that we get the individuals to come out and do some outreach, there’s purpose, there’s money to be made for their time and service, and they get to build their self-confidence. I’ve seen that in action, and even one as myself, a recovering drug and alcohol user, it’s a long-term part of my whole wellness, the process. When you’re dealing with people with substance use disorder it takes one to know one.” 

Wolff said that positive steps are being taken to alleviate the crisis. For example, the Burnaby Primary Care Networks (PCN) is in the process of creating a system that facilitates doctors’ access to other treatment options and services. 

On Nov. 1, Jennifer Whiteside, minister of mental health and addictions released a statement regarding the overdose crisis. “In September, we lost 175 people to the poisoned drug supply circulating in our province,” the statement said. 

Whiteside’s statement added the province plans to invest $3 million over three years in the YMCA’s Y mind and Mind Medicine programs in addition to $74.9 million to enhance Foundry services and add 12 new centres throughout the province, to bring the total to 35. 

“As we continue to improve access to mental health and addiction care in communities throughout BC, we are also expanding access to early intervention and prevention programs, harm reduction tools and resources, treatment and recovery services, and complex-care housing. That’s why we invested $1 billion through Budget 2023, to urgently expand access to programs in all these areas,” Whiteside added. Whether or not these measures will provide sufficient services to address the crisis remains to be seen. 

This piece was made possible by the Local Journalism Initiative.

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