Mayor Gregor Robertson is calling on the provincial government to set up drug injection rooms in all of the single-room-occupancy hotels it owns in the Downtown Eastside as another measure to prevent people from dying of a drug overdose.
The provincial government owns more than 25 hotels in the Downtown Eastside, where people are dying at an alarming rate of overdoses largely linked to the deadly synthetic narcotic fentanyl.
“It’s an essential step right now, given that’s where the deaths are occurring,” said Robertson, noting some B.C. government hotels operated by non-profits have already set up injection rooms.
The B.C. Coroners Service recorded 215 deaths in Vancouver last year. The total death toll for B.C. reached 914 in 2016 and health workers have said preliminary data for January indicates the crisis shows no signs of slowing down.
The coroners service data for 2016 said 90 per cent of the deaths occurred inside, with city council hearing last week from staff that firefighters and paramedics are responding to the low-income hotels more frequently than other residences.
Robertson said many residents and staff in the hotels are trained in how to administer the overdose-reversing naloxone drug. As well, several hotels already have clean injection supplies and available rooms with tables.
“I know there are building operators who are now pursuing this out of desperation because too many people are dying in their buildings,” said the mayor, who acknowledged the city owns six single-room-occupancy hotels and manages two B.C. government hotels.
He said city staff is working with authorities to consider opening injection rooms in the hotels but cautioned it’s a move that has to be aligned with the provincial government and Vancouver Coastal Health Authority. The mayor also encouraged owners of privately-run hotels to open injection rooms in a move he described as “damage control” until treatment and drug substitution therapy can be accessed more widely.
“Anyone who wants to enable this to happen — to save lives — should be getting [financial] support from the B.C. ministry of health,” Robertson added. “There’s been far too many deaths, and with 90 per cent indoors, they have to enable [single-room-occupancy hotels] and low-income housing to set up rooms to keep people alive.”
Health Minister Terry Lake told the Courier last week the ministry had already allowed injection rooms to operate in some drug users’ centres and in some of its hotels, including several operated by Atira Women’s Resource Society.
But Lake said a widespread opening of such facilities in the government’s hotels is “an ongoing conversation” with B.C. Housing and service providers.
“We know that there are people who are dying alone, and our message has consistently been: If you’re going to use [drugs], to use with others, with those that are trained to use naloxone,” the minister said. “We need to make it easier for people to do that. So it is an ongoing conversation at a site-by-site basis.”
Last December, the provincial government announced it was allowing drug injection rooms to be set up in multiple locations in Vancouver, Surrey and Victoria to combat the worsening overdose drug crisis. In Vancouver, locations included the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users’ office and the Portland Hotel Society Washington Needle Depot.
The “overdose prevention sites” – as described by the government – were opened without legal approval from the federal government, which had for years battled in the courts to shut down the legal Insite injection site on East Hastings.
That court action was taken under the Conservative government of then-prime minister Stephen Harper. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government has promised to ease legislation to allow for the opening of more legal injection sites in Canada.
Health Minister Jane Philpott has also recognized “that B.C. is facing an extraordinary situation and that the provincial government clearly feels it needs to take extraordinary measures,” her press secretary Andrew Mackendrick told the Courier in December.
‘It’s been a horrific year’
Janice Abbott, CEO of Atira Women’s Resource Society and Atira Property Management, said she supports the mayor’s call to open more injection rooms in government hotels.
Abbott said her organization opened at least 10 injection rooms in late December in its hotels, including government-owned buildings such as The Gastown, which it manages. She said five tenants at The Gastown died last year of a drug overdose and the non-profit lost a total of 11 women in 2016.
“It’s been a horrific year,” said Abbott, despite staff and many residents trained in how to use naloxone. “Not everybody uses the shared-using rooms to begin with. But at least if some percentage of our tenants use them, staff would have less of a building to cover.”
Abbott said she has seen fewer deaths in the hotels since opening the injection rooms. Whether those rooms are the only reason for the decrease in tenants dying is not something she can definitively say. But, she added, staff and tenants, including a drug user photographed for this story who wears a naloxone kit on his belt, have reversed dozens of overdoses.
Last Wednesday, city council approved $370,000 in the city’s ongoing efforts to combat the overdose crisis. At least $220,000 is dedicated to provide education, training, treatment referrals and “strategic overdose planning” for hotel tenants and homeless shelter residents. The remainder of the money will be used to provide mental health support for firefighters, who are often first responders to the deaths.
Donald Macpherson, executive director of the Canadian Drug Policy Coalition, said opening injection rooms in government hotels is an inexpensive measure and will save lives.
“It’s a good approach,” said Macpherson, the city’s former drug policy coordinator, noting injection rooms are common in supportive housing sites in Europe.
A close example of the European approach occurs at the Dr. Peter Centre in the West End, which houses a day health program and 24-hour care residence. The facility, which caters to people with AIDS and those with mental illnesses and addictions, has operated a three-stall injection room since 2002. It has an exemption from the federal government to do so.