Original Published on Oct 31, 2022 at 18:11
By Dave Baxter, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
Manitoba’s first formal overdose prevention site has begun operating on the streets of Winnipeg, and those who worked to roll out the new service say it’s needed now more than ever, as Winnipeggers and Manitobans continue to fall victim to fatal drug overdoses at rates many have never seen before.
“This has been needed for years, but it’s more important and more urgent now than it ever has been, because we are seeing such a high number and steep rise in overdose deaths and toxic drug supply deaths this year,” Sunshine House executive director Levi Foy said.
According to Foy, Manitoba is now on pace to have more drug overdose fatalities than any other year on record, and as Sunshine House looks to prevent and decrease those deaths, their new overdose prevention site will now run out of an RV trailer the organization purchased earlier this year, and will be set up Thursday to Sunday from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. in a parking lot near the Red Road Lodge along Main Street, a few blocks south of Higgins Avenue.
Foy said what they will offer is a safe place for drug users to use in a controlled environment, while also offering clean and safe supplies including clean needles and meth smoking kits.
“Right now people are using in public parks, in doorways, in bathrooms and just wherever they can, and that can really increase the risk, so we are providing a space where they can use safely, and in a completely non-judgmental environment.”
The service will also offer ways to test the drugs that people are going to put in their systems for substances like fentanyl, or other substances that can be fatal.
“When people can measure quantities and measure what is in their drugs, than they can be prepared, and they can make the decisions they want to make,” Foy said.
Foy added a disproportionate number of Indigenous people in Manitoba continuing to fall victim to overdoses and drug-related deaths, and that is why the new service is completely Indigenous-led and run.
“We had to make sure that it was true to Indigenous cultural values, because of the well-known overrepresentation of death and loss in this drug crisis of Indigenous people,” Foy said.
Foy said Sunshine House also wants users to have people around them when using drugs, just in case something suddenly goes wrong, and their lives might be in danger.
“This way we can intervene immediately. We will have naloxone kits on hand if someone does have an opioid poisoning situation, and we can call a paramedic immediately if that is what we feel is needed.”
According to Foy, the new service is not technically considered a ‘safe consumption site,’ because trained health care professionals will not be on site.
NDP MLA for Union Station Uzoma Asagwara said they have been in contact with Sunshine House as the organization has worked over the previous months to get the trailer up and running, but said what they are not seeing is enough urgency from the PC government to find ways to prevent overdose deaths in Manitoba, and support services like the one now being introduced.
“People are dying, and we have been watching people die preventable deaths in our communities, because the government refuses to support proven harm reduction methods,” Asagwara said.
“What we are seeing is preventable deaths and people that would still be alive today if they could have had their drugs tested, and would have known the drugs were toxic. And we are seeing folks overdosing and dying without anyone there and without any supervision because they are stigmatized and feel ashamed so they are using alone and in unsafe places.”
In an email sent to the Winnipeg Sun, Mental Health and Community Wellness Minister Sarah Guillemard said the province is working on strategies to prevent drug related deaths, but said they were not yet committed to the idea of funding safe consumption sites in Manitoba.
“We are helping to build core services for addictions, so when Manitobans are ready for recovery, they have the services and supports they need as close and as quickly as possible,” Guillemard said.
“We will continue to support evidence-based approaches for addictions services, and jurisdictions that have formalized consumption sites are not seeing reductions in drug use or overdose deaths.
“We are analyzing the outcomes and risks of harm reduction initiatives and reviewing approaches used elsewhere.”
The Winnipeg Sun also reached out to Winnipeg Police to get their take on the new service and if they support what Sunshine House is doing, and a spokesperson said in an email they do support harm reduction methods to prevent drug related overdoses and deaths.
“WPS acknowledges that consuming drugs at overdose prevention sites and supervised consumption sites may reduce the risk of overdose,” the spokesperson said.
“If your loved one is actively using drugs or is at risk of an overdose, encourage them to follow harm reduction practices, and utilize harm reduction services.”