KELOWNA – Jerome Abraham knows first hand how difficult it is to shake an addiction.
In 1998, after years as an addict, he found the strength to leave Kelowna for Kamloops to try to get into one of the only two detox centres in the Interior.
A bed would be available soon, he was told, and it would go to the first person who walked in the door.
“When I got there I found out the bed wouldn’t be available for another week,” he says. “It was two years before I tried again.”
Abraham is now the executive director of Discovery House, an outreach centre in Penticton. He says while the system has improved since his own battle, navigating it is still confusing and discouraging.
“When you are caught in that loop of using every day and for some people, dealing drugs or selling their body, all the stuff that goes along with it… you already feel so low and hopeless about yourself… I’m just going to continue doing what I’m doing.”
This appears to be the case of a young West Kelowna girl who overdosed in a mall bathroom weeks after being turned away from a rehab centre in the Lower Mainland.
Shelley Cook, NDP candidate for Christy Clark’s MLA seat in Kelowna West is also the former executive director for the John Howard Centre in Kelowna. She says if significant changes aren’t made at the provincial level, more kids will follow the path that led to 17-year-old Chelsea Christenson’s death.
“We failed this girl,” she says. “Our province failed her and her family. This young lady had the door slammed in her face when she’s done all the work to get there.”
Interior residents are abusing and getting addicted to opiates at a rate the government can’t match and in cities across the province, more users are dying than ever before. The B.C. Coroners Service just announced 120 British Columbians died as a result of illicit drug overdose last month - the third-highest number of illicit drug deaths in a single month.
There were 79 illicit drug-related deaths in March last year.
So far in 2017, 12 people have died in Kamloops from illicit drug overdose, 24 in Kelowna.
Several different health services areas saw increases in illicit drug overdose deaths greater than 50 per cent compared to 2016, including the Okanagan. Other than Vancouver Island, all health authorities saw more illicit drug overdose deaths last month compared to February 2017.
“Money tends to get lost in bureaucracy rather than actually getting to people and helping them right away,” Abraham says. “We’re seeing some of the fallout from the early 2000s when they shut down a lot of the medium care facilities and had to do cutbacks to balance the provincial budget.”
Discovery House is expanding but currently only has funding for five beds. That means staff are forced to make life or death decisions.
“Sometimes you just have to tell them to keep trying and calling back. That’s the best we can do. We have to focus on the five or six guys that we have in the house and hopefully the other 25 guys on the waitlist can find somewhere else to go or a bed opens up.”
If you live in the Thompson-Okanagan, and are addicted to opiates, there is no hotline you can call. Canadadrugrehab.ca has a list of centres organized by city, but it is not comprehensive.
Abraham says until there is a 9-1-1 equivalent to treat rehab like an emergency – something he strongly supports – addicts have to do the research themselves.
“You can get hooked up for counselling right away (if you have a gambling addiction). Why don’t we have that for drugs and alcohol? There’s no reason why they couldn’t offer a resource like that.”
There are private rehab facilities all over the province, but for those who can’t afford $20,000 a month, there are few options. Abraham says he constantly gets calls from people desperate to get clean but at a loss where to start.
There are no easy answers or provincial standard.
“It depends on where people are at in their recovery,” he says. “If people phone into our centre we do a phone interview right on the spot and see where they’re at. If somebody needs to go to detox, there are only two detox centres in the Interior in Kamloops and Kelowna. It’s generally a week wait so we would first suggest that if they’re using daily.”
The Kelowna detox centre is run by Bridges and the Kamloops detox by the Phoenix Centre. In certain circumstances, outreach workers like Abraham can advocate for a client and occasionally get them in quicker, but the normal process is complex and random.
“You can go through a local outreach centre, you can call detox yourself if you have a phone,” he says. “There are fairly arduous forms that you have to fill out. If you want to get on their intake list you have to go at 1 p.m. on Tuesday, sit there with everybody and then you get an intake appointment. Then they’ll schedule a counseling appointment for you. There’s just not enough spaces.”
When Abraham first decided to get clean, he was so discouraged by the system he started going to Narcotics Anonymous, something he never thought he would do. Now he recommends it as a good first step for anyone thinking about quitting.
“I just thought it was some religious cult, I didn’t know what it was about and there is some of that perception still out there. There are two meetings a day at least in every city in the Okanagan. You don’t have to be clean to go, you just have to have a desire to stop. There is no judgement and a lot of support.”
Support, Abraham says, is something most addicts lack throughout their recovery. If you do get a space in one of the detox centres, you still have to get there.
“It’s not our mandate (to give rides) but we do it because people need it,” Abraham says. “It’s not like there’s any government backing for that. We see a need and everybody throws in $20 and we get the guy there.”
The solution to this growing problem is not going to be easy and will take fighting on several fronts.
“There tends to not be a lot of communication between the government and health authorities and the people working in recovery professionally,” he says. “Most of the recovery houses are tied to some sort of Health Authority. They have specific mandates and it’s all broken down by electoral district and who has the most money. If the Coastal Health Authority is funding a place down at the coast then it’s generally for people at the coast.”
Straying from this mandate, he says, risks their funding.
“They may just pull (their) funding so I think it’s just time for us to start having more conversations and working together more. I’m seeing a little bit more of that."
Another front, he says, is public ignorance.
“There hasn’t been a public voice calling for more treatment centres and when there is… there are people petitioning against it because all they think of is the active addiction.
“’Why are we spending money on helping these people when it’s their choice?’ is something I often hear. You are already spending the money on them. We’re just wasting public healthcare dollars. People are showing up in emergency rooms (because they have nowhere else to go) and one day in the emergency room is $2,000. It’s $92 a day to have somebody in a rehabilitation program.
"(Paramedics) are telling us they’re administering the naloxone pen to some people three and four times a day, the same people. We’re dealing with the acute crisis but where are the services beyond that to help them get out of addiction?”
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