Amber Streukens is the harm reduction peer navigator at ANKORS. Photo: Tyler Harper

Amber Streukens is the harm reduction peer navigator at ANKORS. Photo: Tyler Harper

COLUMN: A sense of belonging for Nelson’s drug users

Amber Streukens writes about inclusivity in harm-reduction programs

by Amber Streukens

Nearly six years into a public health emergency that takes over six lives a day in British Columbia, community overdose response has become normalized among people who use drugs. The pressure this alleviates on stressed medical and emergency response systems has not been quantified but must be significant.

According to BC Emergency Health Services, whereas other communities in the region (Castlegar, Trail, Cranbrook) saw nearly twice as many overdose related calls to 911 in 2021 as compared to 2020, Nelson’s data shows a slight decrease in calls over the same time period.

People who use drugs have unique expertise, deserve to be recognized for their skills, and must be centred in all work aiming to reduce the harms of illicit substance use.

Here in Nelson, ANKORS has a long grassroots history of working from lived and living expertise including prioritizing experiential hiring practices and supporting the Rural Empowered Drug Users Network. In recent years, ANKORS has been involved in the development of a Coordinated Access Lived Expertise Advisory Committee, implemented to inform the development of streamlined service access for people experiencing or at risk of homelessness.

Megan Laveau, lived expertise facilitator for this project, is excited to be involved in this work.

“It’s giving people with lived expertise chances to be a part of the process of trying to tackle the issue of homelessness. It’s great to see passionate and proud individuals in this group, and to give these folks, who are experts, a chance to weigh in. We really see the value, care, and consideration for community.”

Programs such as the Coordinated Access Lived Expertise Advisory Committee, the PEERS Employment Program at the HUB, or REDUN Peer Outreach provide meaningful opportunities for folks to take an active role in addressing issues that impact them directly. For people so often treated as “clients” of a service, meaningful engagement in decision-making and program development fosters empowerment and moves individuals out of victimizing narratives and into opportunities.

Laveau looks at these programs as a space of growth in a sometimes limiting service landscape. “The more we try to put people in boxes the less space they have to grow out of them.”

REDUN Outreach provides another such space. Conducting peer-led community clean-up operations twice a week in Nelson, members collect improperly disposed harm reduction supplies, connect with hard-to-reach individuals, provide harm reduction, nutrition, and other supports, and respond to clean-up requests from businesses and community members as possible.

Beyond the obvious benefits of cleaner public spaces, reduced risk of needle stick injury or blood-borne infection transmission, and increased access to supports and services, REDUN Outreach inspires.

According to Tiffany, peer co-ordinator for the Rural Empowered Drug Users Network and eager REDUN outreach lead, “First and foremost, this project instills a sense of belonging to our community.”

Among those involved, there is a sense of commitment, camaraderie, and pride. REDUN Outreach attends to areas that other services may not reach, prioritizing spaces frequented by children and families — all with the intent of reducing stigma against people who use drugs and promoting healthier communities for all.

Admittedly, this work of lived expertise engagement is not without challenge. Community development is slow and nonlinear. Oftentimes innovative social projects are met with complaint instead of co-operation. Not In My Back Yard attitudes often still prevail and pose a significant obstacle.

“NIMBYisms really hurt this community, not just the people with lived expertise, but the whole community,” says Laveau. If pushing social problems to the margins caused them to be resolved or dissipate, this would have worked already — but it doesn’t, can’t and won’t.

Fear is a powerful emotion, but our communities cannot hide from the realities within or push people out. Not In My Back Yard attitudes are never curative. However, when we meaningfully include and engage people with lived and living experience of homelessness and/or substance use, we can move from a broken model of exclusion and avoidance into a space of potential and growth.

The community of Nelson has a unique opportunity to uphold a reputation of care and co-operation, but we need to work together, not in opposition.

Amber Streukens is the harm reduction peer navigator at ANKORS.