The first provincially funded overdose-prevention site in the Kootenays is open in Nelson.
The site had a soft open in mid-November after ANKORS received a $75,000-grant from the provincial government’s Ministry of Mental Health and Addictions in October.
Now the ANKORS social services agency says it is running the service four days a week after serving 82 visits in December.
Two paid staff, Vera Horsman and Tomiko Koyama, have been hired to run the site, which is open 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday to Thursday. It will expand to 6 p.m. service next week.
Drug potency checks are available, as well as education on safe injection, inhalation, HIV and hepatitis-C. There is also information on how to survive the winter while living homeless.
ANKORS’s executive director Cheryl Dowden said the site primarily exists to prevent overdose fatalities, which killed 1,380 people from January through November last year in B.C.
“When we have trained staff and volunteers on site who can support someone when they use, and if something happens or goes wrong, then they are there to respond with naloxone and calling emergency medical services, so this is extremely important,” said Dowden.
“I think there are too many people who have been impacted in some way by this opioid crisis. We want people to have a safe place to go and use their drugs if that’s what they are doing, and not in public bathrooms on Baker Street.”
No other overdose-prevention site exists in the Kootenays. The next closest is in Kelowna. A Kootenay location had been on ANKORS’s wishlist since the creation of the Nelson Fentanyl Task Force in 2017.
The organization received the greenlight from city council, police and fire services, and the Interior Health Authority to run a temporary site last May.
Two visitors at a time can inject in the room, which ANKORS plans to renovate for better privacy, lighting and easier access.
Horsman, who moved to Nelson last year after working in Victoria and Vancouver, said visitors only need to disclose their initials (which don’t have to be real) and the drug they are using to staff in order to use the site.
“They can expect a very warm, welcome privacy,” said Horsman. “If the day is that Chloe [Sage] is in, they can get their drugs checked before they use, which is fantastic. We can walk them through the process. We give them all their supplies. I’m actually a nurse by training so I can help them find veins.”
Horsman said fentanyl is the most commonly used drug. “There is no heroin; it doesn’t exist.”
That’s followed in popularity by ketamine, morphine and kadian, another opiate. So far, Horsman said, there have been no overdoses at ANKORS.
Visitors are encouraged to stay at least 10 to 15 minutes after injection to make sure they are safe, but some clients will stay longer than that, which is when ANKORS’s other role becomes apparent.
Molly Frost is a volunteer at the site after living on Vancouver’s streets in the 1990s. She said part of her job is to offer emotional support to users.
“Once they feel comfortable, they go away feeling good,” she said. “Some of them cry because they are right at the brink. Maybe their truck broke down or they lost a friend to overdosing. A lot of people come in with problems and we try to make them feel as comfortable and safe as possible and if they need to come and talk, we’re here.”
Horsman said prior to the holidays she had a distraught client visit the site who left having connected with another user.
“They left together, agreed to support each other,” she said. “It was lovely. Those are those moments of connectivity that you want to see.”