Frontline worker Shey Still has become so accustomed to overdose deaths she says she expects the people she helps aren't going to be around for a long period of time.
Still has been involved with the Welcome Inn emergency shelter since it opened in January 2020 and has been the site supervisor and case manager since the shelter temporarily turned into a hygiene centre last spring.
The work is so consuming with the overdose crisis and the increase of overdoses this year, she hasn’t been able to properly grieve for those who have died.
“As a frontline worker, you almost have to compartmentalize and give yourself permission to feel that grief for a certain period of time and then tuck it away. It doesn’t disappear…. If I allowed myself to feel that level of grief on a day-to-day basis, it’s really consuming,” she said.
She sees a trauma therapist, but not as often as she would like due to the pandemic, and said she had to be creative to take time away from everything by spending more time in the outdoors.
The overdose crisis has been exacerbated by the pandemic, with B.C. on track to record the highest number of overdose deaths this year since the crisis began. The spike in overdose deaths can be primarily attributed to the number of users who are isolated and using drugs alone, and an increasingly toxic drug supply.
READ MORE: Kelowna, Kamloops see record breaking number of illicit drug overdose deaths
According to the most recent statistics, 55 people have died of an overdose in Kamloops, 53 in Kelowna, and 23 in Vernon in 2020.
Still said the outreach team at the hygiene station responded to almost an overdose a day back in the springtime of 2020, when COVID-19 restrictions were at their peak. In B.C. July saw the highest number of overdose deaths in the province in a single month since reporting began for the overdose crisis, with 171 deaths.
Just prior to restaurant and business closures last spring, Still also worked part-time on the frontlines of Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside.
During that time, the biggest barrier for the homeless population was finding access to services, she said.
“We started seeing a lot more people using alone, which arguably (has been the toughest part of the overdose with the pandemic.) The effects of COVID-19 on our homeless population contracting COVID-19 has been very limited in Kelowna specifically… but it was the residual effects of the rules put in place to protect general society that was actually contradictory to (harm reduction) practices,” Still said.
“We were seeing people passing away alone in housing, or using out in the streets as they weren’t able to access the community resources that offered safe injection.”
During this time, they saw an increase in overdoses within the vicinity of the hydration centre and at Recreation Avenue’s tent city in Kelowna.
Staff ramped up wellness checks, walked around the tents at and outside of their hydration centre, sometimes every hour or even half-hour, handing out naloxone kits and talking with people, providing them with education about services available if they needed help, Still said.
“With that education piece we started to see a reduction in overdoses in our little area of the universe,” she said.
There’s been a few silver linings to 2020, she said.
“We were the first shelter in Kelowna (to have a pod-bed system) and the pods for the most part have been a gift. They’ve been able to define personal and private space. Try to imagine sleeping on top of a bunk bed or side by side and not having any element of privacy,” she said.
“The hygiene centre was so innovative and creative and something that’s quite often not even pondered… when we opened up the hygiene centre, we were providing strictly that… and because there were so many community resources that people weren’t able to access because of COVID… we started implementing case management (and volunteer and clean-up programs)… we started to become a hub,” she said.
She's excited about the recent announcement of the permanent hygiene centre at Metro Community on St. Paul Street which will open in February.
READ MORE: Temporary emergency shelter opening in Kelowna
“I’m still getting phone calls from people asking about where they can shower and do laundry,” she said. “When the hygiene centre closes down we can only facilitate the support for 39 residents. Towards the end of the hygiene centre’s season, we were seeing roughly 140 unique individuals a week that were accessing services.... and between 40-50 people a day.”
The shelter now provides case management, which wasn’t available last season, she said.
Still said what the shelter residents needs for the future is a safe drug supply.
“Looking at some of these issues from a medical aspect instead of moral failing... it’s not just opioids anymore. We are finding deadly substances across the board."
READ MORE: Kamloops council to consider motion urging feds to decriminalize illicit drugs
With her experience in Vancouver, she said Kelowna could benefit from test strips that test for more than fentanyl and a permanent overdose prevention site rather than a mobile site would also be a positive way to help drug users stay safe, she said.
“To have a brick and mortar overdose prevention site would be huge,” she said.
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