“My life was saved about four times at an OPS site in Vancouver, and eventually, I did find sobriety,” Jenny McDougall says, sitting just outside a mock Overdose Prevention Services (OPS) tent set up at the foot of the Fraser River footbridge on Front Street Tuesday morning (April 16).
The OPS tent was set up by members of the Coalition of Substance Users of the North (CSUN) as part of the National Day of Action to draw attention to the overdose crisis.
McDougall, who is a CSUN member and is the founder and lead of the Clean Team that cleans up drug paraphernalia and litter in the city, has been sober going on nine years now, and she knows the interactions she had with health care providers at an OPS site played a big role in getting her clean.
“I wouldn’t have had this opportunity if it wasn’t for an OPS site saving me,” she said. “If I would have been alone, I would have died for sure.”
McDougall remembers it was hard to go into an OPS site for the first time because she was nervous that it would be like going to the emergency room, where she felt a lot of stigma, and she worried she might get arrested coming or leaving, but it ended up being a positive experience.
“Once I got in the first time, I was made to feel very welcome,” she said. “It was a warm, inviting atmosphere. It was clean, they had a place to wash feet and all that kind of stuff. There was food. I enjoyed my time going there, and I did end up clicking with one of the workers there, and that was the first person I started talking to about my goals.”
On the National Day of Action, CSUN was adding its voice in support of the demands being made by the Canadian Association of People Who Use Drugs to the federal government, including demanding that the federal government declare a national emergency across Canada, demanding an end to the criminalization of drugs and the criminalization of people who use drugs, dignified access to a safe supply of drugs, demanding that a safe supply be added as one of Canada’s drug policy pillars, and demanding removal of the public consultation requirement for supervised consumption site approval.
Organizations like CSUN are also speaking out about provincial demands and local demands, and McDougall says one of their local demands is an OPS site, so they set up a mock OPS tent to show an example of what it could look like in our community.
McDougall says she hopes people walking by the mock OPS site see that it is a health service, and it is a clean, safe area, which keeps people from using drugs around businesses and parks and overdosing and dying in areas where they are isolated and alone.
“Here, it gives them a chance to engage with service providers every single time they come in,” she said. “They learn to build a trust with the people who work there, and they start opening up and talking, and then we can refer them to the services they need beyond this.”
McDougall says the event was also about educating people so they are not afraid of OPS sites.
The mock OPS tent was set up like the site in Prince George, explained nurse Kathy Wrath, noting a site like this offers sterilized needles, harm reduction information, access to support, and there is a health care provider there in case something goes wrong, who is also someone to talk to.
“I’ve had people say ‘this is the first time someone has listened to my story,’” she said. “That goes a long way to reducing shame. They have enough shame.”
CSUN president and founder Charlene Burmeister emphasized the importance of awareness and education with a day like this, as well as creating community readiness for the services that are needed.
“It’s really just about shining the light on the fact we need decriminalization and safe supply for people,” she said. “We want to add safe supply as the fifth pillar to the harm reduction approach. It’s recognizing that substance use is more of a health care and social concern than it is a criminal one, and to continue to criminalize people who use substances is a really ineffective way to approach that … I think we just kind of historically see that people think those who use substances lack moral decision-making processes, and sometimes when we see people with problematic substance use and the things we see on the streets with needles being found in the community and some of the crime and other things, there are really great ways for us to mitigate those types of issues, but most people won’t open their minds to evidence-based approaches to that because we quite often are raised with stigmatizing thoughts, and we have to challenge ourselves about changing our thought process around that.”
During the three-hour Day of Action event, CSUN also gave out food and asked people to sign a petition to have an OPS site in Quesnel, and people could come into the tent and receive Naloxone training. Naloxone is a medication that works to quickly reverse the effects of an overdose from opioids, such as heroin, fentanyl and morphine. Visit towardtheheart.com to learn more about Naloxone and Take-Home-Naloxone kits.