Monday, May 12, 2008

Homeless needle exchange hits road for better or worse
May 9, 2008

We’re about to become the first major city in Canada to pull the plug on its needle exchange, without a clue what will happen as a result.
As of the end of May, the region’s largest needle exchange will close its doors on Cormorant Street and begin a mobile service. The business of exchanging as many as 2,000 needles a day will be done on the street from that point on.
What’s the rationale? There isn’t one. It’s just what happens when the chips are left to fall where they may. The needle exchange is going mobile not because it’s an effective strategy on any front, but simply because no place can be found for it.
Greater Victoria has had a needle exchange for almost 20 years, operated by AIDS Vancouver Island. You’d never know it from the hand-wringing and hysteria that has accompanied any mention of the exchange this past year or two, but once upon a time the exchange had neighbours who actually wrote letters supporting it, and a day-care centre right across the street.
Those days are long gone, and for reasons that have little to do with the needle exchange itself.
Most notably, the number of people using the needle exchange has increased dramatically - from 500 clients in 1996 to more than 1,500 today, with no concurrent increase in funding. Up until a small lift last fall in the midst of a community uproar over Cormorant Street, the exchange had been juggling triple the number of clients with the same staffing levels as a decade ago.
The drugs have changed as well, says AVI communications co-ordinator Andrea Langlois. More mellow drugs like heroin have given way to intense ones like cocaine and crystal meth, which can crank up negative behaviours in users due to the way they affect brain chemicals.
Both of those drugs are also injected far more frequently by addicted users - sometimes 20 or more times a day. That has increased traffic at the exchange.
Then there’s just the sheer volume of people out there. The number of people living on the streets has grown fivefold since the exchange moved into its current Cormorant Street location in 2001. With most other services closed up at night, the exchange evolved into a place where the street community could hang out.
No surprise, then, that the neighbours gradually worked themselves into a fury over the discarded needles, garbage and steady stream of sick, scabby people they were seeing outside their doors. The owner of the building that housed the exchange gave AVI notice last fall that the service had to go.
Months of fruitless searching for another location followed. There was a plan to move the exchange into a Pandora Avenue building next to Our Place drop-in, but that fell through after alarmed parents from a private school a couple blocks away nixed the move. With the May 31 eviction date now looming, AVI has no choice but to go mobile.
It’s a most peculiar development for a region that really can’t afford any more evidence of the social decay in its core. Up until now, we’ve had one needle exchange; now we’ll have one wherever AVI’s van stops. What’s our plan for when those neighbourhoods inevitably start to complain?
Langlois is especially worried about the clients who like to maintain a low profile - the ones who stop by every night after work to pick up a needle or two.
They’re not going to want to risk being identified by having to make their exchange in a public place, especially if TV camera crew decide to make a big deal out of following the van on its route. The opportunity to connect clients with other services - including detox and treatment - will also be lost when the exchange goes mobile.
“We really don’t know how successful we’ll be in maintaining the number of needles exchanged once we’re mobile,” says Langlois, adding that if the number of exchanges drops off, “there’s potential for an epidemic of hepatitis-C in this city.”
The needles may be what bring people through the door, says Steve Bradley, a Christian outreach worker and recovering addict who used to run a support group at the exchange. But it’s the support and sense of connection that people get while there that can change their lives, he notes. Without it, there’s no way out.
“You close the needle exchange, you’re going to see crime downtown increasing,” predicts Bradley. “We can’t afford to lose that place.”
Got a widemouth plastic water bottle to throw out in the wake of the bisphenol-A scare? Drop it off at the needle exchange this month - they’ll hand the bottles out to clients as “sharps” containers for needle disposal.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Downtown Residents' Association members are split on this issue. We all want to solve the addiction crisis but our members on the Cormorant side of Downtown are breathing a sigh of relief while those of us on the north side of Harris Green are bracing ourselves.

At a meeting last week with AVI and VIHA I asked a question that was on the mind of many DRA members: VIHA arbitrarily reduced AVI's funding in order to address an "imbalance" in how money was distributed throughout Vancouver Island--what assurances do we have that VIHA won't take away AVI's funding again in the name of geographic equity, with a return the the chaos and social disorder of before? In other words, can VIHA guarantee funding based on measurable and reasonable expectations of safety and security? Or will funding depend on whatever's left over for Victoria? While AVI's pursestrings are held by VIHA, VIHA's funding is set by the Province.

I heard one government official say that our homeless initiative funding would be strong this year as we are coming up to a Provincial election. But what about the year after that?

The DRA supports the findings of the Mayor's Task force and acknowledges the benefits of a needle exchange. Yet our ordinarily tolerant and urban-savvy members are exasperated with the unreasonable disorder surrounding the Cormorant Street exchange, much of which can be directly attributed to a lack of commitment to sustainable funding.