Spontaneous Overdose Prevention is Not Enough

Nanaimo’s Discontent City calls for Island Health to open a 24/7 Overdose Prevention Site in the camp

Bellrena McKay

On June 27th, six weeks after the founding of Discontent City, we experienced an overdose related death. Bellrena McKay went down in the tent city. A resident who has saved over fifty people from overdose-related deaths worked on bringing her back, but she later died in hospital.

Last year, there were 51 overdose deaths in Nanaimo. For over a year, health officials and drug user communities and advocates in Nanaimo have been calling for the City to rezone an existing Overdose Prevention Site to turn it into a fully functional Supervised Consumption Site, which would open up more funding for more health services and safer inhalation. Bowing to NIMBY pressure, the City has halted rezoning indefinitely. According to City Councillor Gord Fuller, who has emerged as a prominent Facebook critic of Discontent City, “All you need in those buildings is a room that someone can come down and use in while a staff person hangs out and makes sure they don’t OD. You don’t need a large scale type of operation.” This perspective is wrong and it is killing homeless and low-income drug users in Nanaimo.

Drug users need an operation that is of scale to meet the needs of people who use drugs in our community. Because of government neglect, low-income drug users have responded to overdoses with ad-hoc, voluntary and spontaneous action; but with hundreds of people needing support, these efforts are stretched thin and are not enough. Until Canada’s disastrous drug prohibition policies are overturned, the community in Discontent City needs organized, dependable life-saving resources in the form of a fully-funded Overdose Prevention Site open 24 hours a day.

“They’re looking for any reason to shut us down.” – Ryan

Bellrena regularly stayed at the Samaritan House Women’s shelter, but was staying at Discontent City the night she died. Her death has shaken the residents of the camp and devastated her loved ones. While we grieve the loss of another life to the overdose epidemic, the City of Nanaimo is using Bellrena’s death to push the narrative that the camp itself is unsafe for community. We are disturbed and angered at this transparent attempt to use a person’s death to dismantle the camp and displace people, and we see right through the City’s fraudulent show of concern for the lives of the homeless. In the words of Ryan, a resident of Discontent City, “they’re looking for a reason to shut us down.”

In a recent CHEK news article, Acting Mayor Ian Thorpe states that, “[Bellrena’s death] underscores our belief that [Discontent City] is not a safe situation.” Historically, the City and the media have been utterly disinterested in recognizing deaths in the homeless community; that Bellrena’s death took place in a politicized context is the only reason municipal powers are paying any attention. Prior to Bellrena’s death, Thorpe was quoted arguing that the tent city needs to be dismantled so that downtown Nanaimo can remain a “people place”, suggesting that homeless people are not human. It is clear to us that homeless people’s lives and deaths mean nothing to politicians, unless they can be leveraged to further their political agenda. As Gina, a founding resident of the camp, points out, if officials are so concerned about the safety of Discontent City residents, they should focus on the biggest threat to the camp: poor-bashing vigilante violence.

“Overdoses aren’t isolated events in our camp, they are happening in the community at large all of the time.” – Gina

There were 51 overdose-related deaths in Nanaimo last year. If the tent city is to be held accountable for one fatal overdose that occurred within it, then the city of Nanaimo should be held responsible for the innumerable deaths within the homeless community prior to tent city. When someone dies of an overdose in profit-driven enterprises, like motels or hotels, the government does not shut down the business. When someone dies of an overdose in apartment buildings, the government does not evict all the other tenants and condemn the building. When someone dies of an overdose in hospital, we don’t shut down the hospital. Rather, we recognize the need for housing and other spaces that save lives.

The opioid crisis cannot be blamed on individual drug users or the communities that have banded together to save one another’s lives in the face of government-organized drug prohibition that has created mass death. Bellrena’s and countless other needless overdose deaths are the fault of a federal government that refuses to reform drug policy and decriminalize all drugs in Canada, a provincial government that creates barriers to accessing injectable opioid agonist therapy and prescription heroin, and a municipal government that time and time again has blocked the establishment of a supervised consumption site where people can safely use drugs.

Discontent City

Residents call for a peer-run overdose prevention site at DisconTent City

Three weeks after Bellrena’s death, residents and organizers of Discontent City have been heartbroken by another life lost to overdose. Tent city residents call on the Minister of Mental Health & Addictions, Judy Darcy, to bypass the City of Nanaimo Council and provide emergency funding for a fully-operational, peer-run Overdose Prevention Site (OPS) at Discontent City.

Prior to the tent city, peers in Nanaimo were running a pop-up site once a month on income assistance cheque days consisting of a tent with two tables, chairs, and a supply table along with surface disinfectant. Everybody running the site was trained in overdose response and how to use Naloxone. According to Kevin Donaghy, organizer with Discontent City and Alliance Against Displacement, “When Discontent City was established, running the pop-up site out of the tent city seemed like the logical thing to do.” He continues, “However, while it was okay on a temporary basis, the health resources were not enough to meet the needs of hundreds of people on a consistent ongoing basis.” Donaghy says that with Provincial funding, Discontent City leadership could pay peer workers a living wage to operate a peer-run, 24/7 Overdose Prevention Site at the tent city and stop all potential future overdose deaths.

The truth is that homeless people and drug users are the ones who save lives in our communities. We save lives despite limited resources and attempts by the police and government to sabotage us. The City of Nanaimo is trying to crush our community by pretending the opposite is true. Kara, who lives at the tent city, explains that “people establish their needs within the community, and the community helps regulate the needs people in here have.” Discontent City gives residents the space to become empowered, politically active, and exercise autonomy over themselves and their community, as homeless people and as drug users. It is poverty, drug prohibition, and anti-drug user stigma that is killing a thousand people a year in BC; it is community resistance to this hate and our care for each other that is saving thousands more.

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