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: Hope at the intersection of emergencies

The first of an ongoing column from ANKORS

At the intersection of overlapping public health emergencies, the headlines often feel bleak.

Over 7,000 people in B.C. have died of overdose since 2016, with 500 fatalities recorded in the first three months of 2021. The average life expectancy in Canada is declining due to high rates of overdose fatalities. The overdose crisis rages on with no clear end in sight. The threat of COVID remains ever-present, and our collective fatigue is ever-increasing.

No community is untouched by this crisis, no person unaffected. It can be hard to find hope in these troubled times. Perhaps, though, hope isn’t actually something we find, but something we make.

Nelson is home to some talented individuals, including many responsive, creative, and compassionate community members and professionals leading the charge in community responses to both the overdose crisis and the COVID-19 pandemic. Despite (or because of) our small population, Nelson has shown great leadership in rural harm reduction. People and partnerships create an environment of possibility and a community of connection, and from this foundation hope is born.

ANKORS has been supporting folks in the Kootenay Boundary region for decades. This grassroots nonprofit initially formed to support those living with or at risk of acquiring HIV/AIDS and has expanded over the years to include support around Hepatitis C and other sexually transmitted and blood borne infections.

Today, ANKORS’ services include a wide spectrum of harm reduction services for people who use drugs, treatment and recovery support, men’s health, and LGBTQ2+ health and wellness for people throughout the East and West Kootenay and Boundary regions. Full spectrum harm reduction services include: drug checking, Naloxone training and other education, mobile harm reduction supply distribution, safe syringe disposal, staffed overdose prevention site, opioid agonist therapy and safer supply clinic, supported recovery housing, STBBI testing and treatment support, sexual health education, peer navigation, support, education and advocacy. ANKORS strives to provide low-barrier, person-centred supports that meet people wherever they’re at.

ANKORS pivoted very quickly when the COVID-19 public health emergency was declared on March 17, 2020. Long before masking was mandated, PPE protocols and sanitation plans were put in place to ensure that folks never lost access to washroom facilities or harm reduction services.

Despite reduced capacity in the building, including the unfortunate loss of the drop-in space, ANKORS never closed. Many programs shifted into outreach, connecting in community to support unmet needs during lockdown. New strategic partnerships and services emerged quickly to fill in gaps, including a city-sanctioned encampment and safer supply prescribing team. This was made possible by a long history of interagency collaboration between ANKORS, Nelson CARES, the Nelson Committee on Homelessness, and others.

Relationship building has always been at the root of the work ANKORS does, the fruit of which became clear in the context of COVID-19. Despite high rates of isolation, trauma, and complex health needs experienced by many service users, overall compliance with physical distancing and mandatory masking shows commitment to the relationships built over time. These COVID requirements often serve as huge barriers for many vulnerable people accessing services, and yet the majority of ANKORS service users have readily adapted to new models of engagement and service delivery.

It is a great privilege to work alongside people with experiential knowledge, survivors of the drug war. Far from depleting, these relationships provide so much nourishment, inspiration, and ultimately hope. By centring the perspectives of those with lived and living experience we challenge the traditional power dynamic of the service user-clients and are opened up to transformative opportunities. Together we can develop a practice of community care, built upon our collective resistance and solidarity as we continue to fight the war on people who use drugs.

Not just a passive noun, hope is also an active verb. Just like the little grassroots nonprofit emerging organically from the passion of people driven by an ethic of care to respond to emergent and significant need, hope too grows from a tiny spark flamed by a committed collective.

ANKORS’ upcoming annual general meeting is scheduled for June 28, 2021. For more information or to get involved with ANKORS, please reach out — in Nelson at 101 Baker St., 250-505-5506 (Monday to Thursday 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.), online at ankors.bc.ca, and on Facebook @ANKORS West.

This is the first of a new ongoing column from ANKORS.

opioid crisis