A former drug user who is now an outreach worker says he’s never seen overdose levels like he has this summer or the kind of toxic drug supply on Ottawa’s streets, a sentiment echoed by other front-line workers.
“In the 30 years I used heroin, I can count maybe five overdoses. In the last month, I can count five overdoses in this area,” said David McEvoy with the Drug Overdose Prevention and Education (DOPE) Response Team of the Somerset West Community Health Centre.
McEvoy said it’s a “whole different world” now, with a safe drug supply getting harder to find.
“The problem has changed exponentially, for various reasons. Fentanyl being one of them.”
Peer support workers with that health centre walk up to 10 kilometres a night in the Centretown area, providing food, clothing and help.
“They can talk to me because I’ve lived their life and I can speak their language,” McEvoy said. “Hopefully I can put them at ease and then we make them aware of all we can do for them.”
In June and July, Ottawa Inner City Health has reported some of the highest numbers of overdoses they’ve responded to in a summer.
“It’s just been really challenging and really hard on our clients and the community of people who use drugs and are overdosing,” said Anne Marie Hopkins, its director of operations.
Hopkins adds that the demand has also been tough on staff as their workload is increasing both at the facility and even more, out in the field.
“We were never just supposed to be a place that keeps people alive and breathing, and right now we’re in such a reactive position.”
In May, front-line staff responded to 40 overdoses at the clinic and 30 overdoses outside.
But in June, staff dealt with 60 overdoses inside and 77 outside.
Hopkins said their safe injection site can only service 14 people at a time, which often creates a waiting period that leads people to use in unsafe environments.
It’s about access
Hana Haines, the manager of operations for the harm reduction department at the Somerset West centre, said the need for overdose response and prevention is constantly exceeding the services that are offered.
She said there is nothing available in the community after hours.
“Just because it’s 5 a.m. doesn’t mean they’re stopping using drugs.”
The DOPE team started just before the pandemic as a direct response to the opiate crisis.
The program has been extended until March 2023, but Haines said it would benefit from more funding to reach the community in a way that it requires.
“We’re constantly evolving because the drug supply and the needs of our clients are constantly changing.”
After five years of working in harm reduction, Haines said it can be daily struggle of loss and grief but the work they do at the centre is far more meaningful than the stress it can sometimes induce.
“Oftentimes we’re holding the hope for people if they’re not able to hold it in that moment. And if we’re not holding it, who’s holding it for them?” she asked.
“So that’s what keeps me going.”