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New West health contact centre aiming to save lives

Centre provides a variety of services
From left, Travis Walker, site coordinator, and Will Place, senior harm reduction worker, aim to provide a welcoming and nonjudgmental vibe at the new health contact centre in New Westminster.

It’s quite likely lives have been saved during the month the new safe consumption site has been open in New Westminster.

A health contact centre, which includes a safe consumption site, opened downtown on April 7. It’s operated by the Lower Mainland Purpose Society.

Travis Walker, site coordinator, said the centre has received positive feedback from people who have been attending the safe consumption site. If not for the facility, he said many of those folks would likely be using drugs outside, tucked away in areas where they wouldn’t be seen.

“We have had several overdoses,” he said. “There are varying ranges of severity, but there are people who have overdosed, who certainly, if they hadn’t been here, could have potentially died.”

In a few of those cases, people had stopped breathing, which could have resulted in long-term permanent damage or death, said Will Place, senior harm reduction worker.

Since opening last month, the health contact centre has hosted two open houses to give people a chance to tour the facility and get information about the services provided. The Record attended the May 12 open house, which was held before the facility opened to clients later in the day.

Entering the space from its entrance on Alexander Street, visitors first encounter a staffed table where they can get supplies such as clean drug supplies, drug-checking kits, small disposal kits for needles and naloxone kits. They can also pick up brochures about substance use, addiction, overdose prevention and safe disposal of needles.

Moving further into the facility, visitors will check in at an intake station.

“The first time people come in we do a quick intake with them. We get some very basic information,” Walker explained. “Then people can choose what they want to be called while they are here. We don’t necessarily use real names. That’s just the first time they come in we do that; after that they can just come in and give their name. We keep track of how many times people are using the site, when they come in and how frequently.”

Some people may drop by the centre to pick up supplies or information, while others may stick around to get trained on the use of naloxone or to use their drugs in a safe consumption area. Those who want to make use of the safe consumption area wait in chairs in a physically distanced waiting area for spaces to become available in the eight stations.

“It’s a big space, a lot bigger than other safe consumption sites,” Walker noted. “There are clear sightlines so we can keep an eye on them.”

Harm-reduction workers are seated at desks at either end of the space, where they can keep an eye on people and assist them if they needed.

“They just let the worker know what they are using. They can pick up any supplies that they need. Once they are done using, they can choose to leave, or, if they don’t feel ready to leave, we have a recovery area,” Walker said. “At that table there, people can hang out, have a coffee. There are art supplies if people want to do that.”

Aside from safe consumption and access to supplies and information about safer drug use, visitors to the health contact centre can get referrals to treatment centres and health services. They can also get their drugs checked to determine if fentanyl is present in the drugs, so they’re able to decide if they want to use those drugs.

“It’s just with the fentanyl test strips,” Walker said. “If people want to give us a small amount, we can test it for them and tell them whether what they’re doing is positive for fentanyl. We can’t tell them how much fentanyl.”

A safe place

Walker said the centre is a welcoming, safe and non-judgmental place where people can use drugs, but it’s also a resource that people can use if they want assistance in accessing other services, including housing, health and detox.

“We want to let people know – we are a non-judgmental space – but if people want help getting in touch with services, recovery services, detox services, we absolutely want to do as much of that as we can,” he said.

According to the BC Coroners Service, there were 35 illicit drugs toxicity deaths in New Westminster in 2020, 20 in 2019, 36 in 2018 and 24 in 2017. Between Jan. 1 and March 31, 2021, there were 12 deaths.

In response to deaths associated with the drug poisoning crisis, New Westminster city council passed a motion in July 2020 directing city staff to work with Fraser Health to explore an overdose prevention site and a safe supply program in New Westminster. Fraser Health ultimately selected the Purpose Society to run the facility, and council approved a temporary use permit allowing the health contact centre to operate in the Begbie Street space that had been home to Purpose’s secondary school.

“It’s been running very smoothly. Not a lot of issues,” Walker said. “We are seeing maybe, on average, six or seven people a night. Word is still getting out, but we are kind of getting a lot more steady flow. A lot of people are coming in for supplies.”

Some people visit the centre occasionally, while others drop by almost daily, Walker said.

“A lot of the people we are seeing are people who are based in New Westminster,” he said. “I don’t think we are seeing people travel or come here specifically to use this.”

Walker said some people aren’t happy about the centre’s presence in downtown New West, but most of the feedback suggests people see the benefit of the services being offered.

“We want to be a positive part of this community, a positive impact on this community,” he said. “We live here. We want to help, and we want to see New Westminster thrive, and we want to help the people who need it get to a point where they don’t need us anymore.”

Follow Theresa McManus on Twitter @TheresaMcManus
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