CSUN member Jenny McDougall holds up a petition calling for an Overdose Prevention Services (OPS) site in Quesnel. CSUN members were asking people to sign the petition during the National Day of Action on the Overdose Crisis April 16, and they set up a mock OPS tent on Front Street to educate people about what one could look like in this community. Lindsay Chung photo

‘My life was saved at an OPS site’

CSUN raises awareness about Overdose Prevention Services sites on National Day of Action in Quesnel

“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.”

READ MORE: Peer support workers in Quesnel work to reduce overdose deaths in the north

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.

April marks the three-year anniversary of the Public Health Emergency, which was declared due to the rising numbers of overdose deaths across the province.

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.

“It’s just one thing we would like to see,” said McDougall. “We also want other wrap-around services; we do want detox; we do want treatment in the community as well. We just want to have this for people who aren’t quite ready for that yet, to kind of meet people where they’re at. While they’re using, we want them to be safe.”

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.

“We all want the same thing in the end, we want people to be in homes, we want people to be safe and not having to be outside in alleys and around businesses,” she said, adding that OPS sites can stop the spread of diseases as well because users are getting new supplies every time.

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.”

Wrath says in Prince George, they have their OPS attached to their needed exchange.

“It’s amazing how clean it is and how respectful it is,” she said. “It’s attached to health services, which is ideal.”

Wrath says while attaching an OPS site to health services would be ideal for access, the key is to just start something.

“We can’t be waiting and waiting,” she said. “People are dying, and if we have to have it in a tent, that’s what we need. It has to be done subtlety, or maybe we have to take services out to people because it’s hard for people to come in.The thing is, we need to just start trying. And the peers will tell us what works.”

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.”

“I think it really comes down to readiness of communities, and for me, I think it’s really important that we do knowledge exchange opportunities and sharing information with people that help people to think differently or challenge their own biases.”

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.


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