Homelessness and the Overdose Crisis are Designed this Way

Anita Place Tent City saving lives during an opioid overdose genocide: An interview with Dwayne Martin

Dwayne always tells me that he didn’t like me when he first met me. He says he couldn’t figure out what my angle was; why I was wanting to start a tent city. I met him when he was living in the Rain City shelter. He told me that he only took part in meetings at all because Tracy Scott vouched for us. He didn’t move into Anita Place until the shelter closed, about a month after the camp started, but once he did, Dwayne became one of the camp’s most consistent leaders.

One of the roles Dwayne is best-known for in camp is as an overdose first responder. The week we did this interview, he says he hit his triple-digit, 100th overdose response. A visitor to the camp dropped in the common area, someone called for Narcan, and Dwayne ran out as he always does. I’ve seen him work on people who have dropped from opioid overdose – he is uniquely caring, careful, and unrelenting. Dwayne doesn’t use opioids himself but he knows that if he uses Naloxone on someone it’ll wreck their fix and they will have to use again right away, so he works on them with CPR, pain response, and by talking to them, encouraging them back. He monitors their pulse and breathing, giving them supporting breaths if their breathing becomes too shallow. Dwayne gets transfixed when he is working on someone who has overdosed, watching anxiously for a moment of uncertainty, calling out for more Naloxone, or for a moment where the ambulance must be called. Dwayne says that out of 100 people he has worked on, he has never lost anyone.

Dwayne’s story of responding to the overdose crisis, and of those in his community who he has lost is a snapshot of Anita Place within a broader context – as one site within a drug prohibition genocide that is sweeping low-income drug user communities. In the past 2 years, death has become a constant for homeless, Indigenous, queer, low-income people and part of Anita Place has been an organic community intervention against this crisis – it is a place where those most vulnerable to death have refused to die.

Dwayne working on his adult colouring book under the tarp outside his tent

The first thing that’s coming into my mind is everybody who is gone. The people we have lost. We’ve lost too many people and we’re losing more. Yesterday Lester died; he had a heart attack down on the log sort. I hadn’t been down there in awhile and I went down with my buddy and I fell asleep across the water from him. If I had been close enough to hear them I could have saved him. The people who were around didn’t have CPR.

Eddy’s gone, Marno’s gone, Tiersen’s gone. Tiersen was an arrogant fuck. He knew something about everything, and if he didn’t know it he made it up. He was tall and good looking and he fought in the war. He was a very good friend. He went home and used. He was ashamed that he was using, he didn’t want anyone to know he was using. He was a sharing guy, I’ve seen him give the shirt off his back – because he wanted to show off his chest, haha. He relapsed and didn’t want people to know. Keeping it secret, the shame, it’s what killed him.

I was here when Marno died but I was asleep and no one woke me up. It feels like things get a bit relaxed because we didn’t have anybody die, but we can’t get over confident. Marno didn’t die here, he died in the hospital.

I just hit 100 people who I have brought back from overdoses, between the Rain City shelter and here. The one I remember the most is a guy I didn’t know. He dropped on the sidewalk on Lougheed. I narcanned him 8 times and worked on him doing CPR for an hour and a half. An hour and a half. I had someone call 911 in the first 20 minutes and the ambulance didn’t get there for an hour and a half. The ambulance drove up with no lights on, they walked up slowly like they didn’t care. There were 6 people in that ambulance, sitting around. The guy just woke up when the ambulance got there. The ambulance attendant said to me, with the guy awake in front of us, “I would have stopped working on him an hour ago.” I was livid. That big cop who comes in here – he showed up after the ambulance, when I was getting up, he sneered at me and said, “you people.”

You know the Fire Chief with grey hair who keeps trying to shut down this camp? I’ve saved his son 3 times.

The government is the reason that people are dying. They let people have this fentanyl that is made for soldiers in the field, for people in severe pain who are about to die. Now they give it to patients and they release them and you don’t have a monkey on your back, you have a gorilla. And it’s not free, and no one will give it away for free. I’ve seen good people do bad things because they need that drug. There should be better drugs.

Back in Rain City shelter I’ve seen 20 people go down in 24 hours from Fentanyl. People get over confident. I knew a girl who had a huge tolerance for Fent. She could do 9 points and it wouldn’t phase her. And then one day she just did a hoot in the bathroom of some guy’s place and overdosed, and he didn’t know what to do with her and she died. There’s hot spots and you never know what you’re getting.

I did a crack hoot once with 4 other people and I was the only one who didn’t do down, and I dropped. I went blind but I could still hear. I could hear the paramedics talking about me. I tell you, there’s no light at the end of the tunnel where I’m going.

I am going to a conference about drug overdoses and I’m going to tell them we need to stop this. I’ve been to one of these meetings at the library and there was a circle of professionals: one’s from Coastal Health, another is from the Fire Department. I said I’m Dwayne and I live in a homeless camp and I’ve been up all night beating rats off my tent. All they were talking about was labels for things. One kept saying the word “progress” like “we need to progress.” They were trying to find the right way to talk about things, not the right thing to do.

I made it safe at the Rain City shelter. That was the reason I stayed there; to keep people safe. But here we have freedom and privacy. I see the advocates – you, Chris Bossley, the lawyers sometimes butting heads, and I love it. You’re all on our side and we need to have everyone with different views here.

People who are here are with their people. Remember that everyone in this camp is at the lowest point in their lives. We’re survivors here. We’ve been treated like dogs and if you’re treated like a dog for too long you get turned into one. They’ve been out so long being treated like dogs, they need a chance to learn how to be with people. I’ve seen people change here. Like Jamie, he’s batshit crazy. He’s hard from being treated like a dog. But he’s got a huge heart and I’ve seen him help people here and they’ll never know he helped them, and now he cares about the camp and he’s even going to protests.

This place changed things for me because it gave me a purpose, it makes me feel like I’m helping. I grew up with the belief that if you can’t provide for your family then you’re a piece of shit. I felt like I couldn’t do anything good for my family. Here I feel like I can help people who need it. We’re changing the way people think in the camp and in the whole city.

We’re homeless because of a failure of our government and because of society as a whole. This society needs to keep people poor – that’s who we have fighting in our wars and doing the shittiest jobs. People think that we’re living in tents and doing drugs because we decided to, but it’s designed this way.

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