‘We hear the ambulances’

Advocates say at least one harm reduction site in addition to mobile services are desperately needed in neglected South Vancouver


By Erin Conners

While South Vancouver suffers from the worst ratio of overdose deaths to emergency calls, mobile services could be one option to help keep people alive, according to city councillor Pete Fry.

Fry said he is unsure whether a harm-reduction site would be suitable for South Vancouver “because of the sheer size and de-concentration of users and overdoses.”

“I’m more partial to a mobile solution, to be honest,” said Fry. A mobile solution aims to provide harm reduction service where people live.

Data from B.C. Emergency Health Services and B.C. Centre for Disease Control shows that South Vancouver has had the worst death-to-call ratio in the city for the past six years. In 2022, there was one illicit drug toxicity death for every eight overdose calls attended by paramedics in South Vancouver, compared to a 1:14 ratio in the entire city that same year.

Grassroot Struggles

Amal Ishaque, co-founder of the Marpole Mutual Aid Network, said the lack of city resources in South Vancouver is a problem.

“We hear the ambulances all the time,” Ishaque said, adding that South Vancouverites “need a safe supply.”

Ishaque said at least one safe consumption site is needed to begin with. “At the same time, I think we definitely need more mobile services to come into the neighbourhoods.”

Mobile services could reach those using drugs who “invisibilize themselves” to avoid harassment, not just by police or during street sweeps but also by some neighbours who don’t want them there, Ishaque said.

Mobile services in other cities

Kristina Selby-Brown, the coordinator of the Mobile Health Van at The Lower Mainland Purpose Society for Youth and Families, said, “Wherever people are that need the services, we will get to them.”

“We go to mansions … and we also go to street corners and down alleyways and into parks.”

Selby-Brown said the van also transports samples of users’ drugs to the organization’s office for testing.

“The weekend warrior, for example, who uses coke on the weekends or MDMA or something with his partner or by himself, isn’t likely to come into a safe injection site to access drug checking,” she said. “That’s why we fought so hard to get the permission from the Ministry of Transportation to be able to legally transport drug samples so that we could include those people.”

Upkar Singh Tatlay, the founder and executive director of Engaged Communities Canada Society, which operates the Mobile Health Unit,  said the program helps to break down cultural barriers to harm reduction in Surrey. Like South Vancouver, visible minorities in those areas represent more than half of the population in 2016 Census data by Statistics Canada.

Tatlay said it makes all the difference when people who speak their languages reach out, especially in South Asian communities.

“It was our family, friends and loved ones, our relatives. We were attending funerals,” he said, adding that he recognized there were no resources within some ethnic communities when he saw a spike in deaths a decade ago.

In an email to the Voice, Vancouver Coastal Health’s communications department stated VCH has not opened overdose prevention sites in South Vancouver because the authority “prioritizes and delivers substance use services based on community needs or demands, and overdose risk.”

The health authority said it offers harm reduction supplies in South Vancouver through the South Mental Health and Substance Use Team clinic on West 73rd Avenue.

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