Following an electrical fire on June 14, the Society for Narcotic and Opioid Wellness (SNOW)'s outreach house has closed. The 103 Avenue location had been offering harm reduction services for the past three years, reversing five to seven overdoses a day.
The organization did move to a temporary location on 10th Street, but were closed after the city received several complaints from business owner and residents . Councillor Jerimy Earl said the new location is raising ire due to being in a retail corridor and too publicly visible when addressed by council on July 18.
"For a temporary site, if I'm only going to be somewhere for a month or two, I don't build a gazebo, for starters," he said. "Once again, communication. You need to tell people what's going on in their neighbourhood. You don't destigmatize substance abuse and the struggles people are dealing with by being clandestine or cloak and dagger about it."
SNOW peer lead Lyric Parnham says they don’t have time to wait – with users at risk and no overdose prevention or harm reduction sites open.
"It's been a battle for us from day one - but being survivalists and being people with lived experience, we are the experts of our field, we know what we need and want," he said. "The clinical aspect that Northern Health offers is an unsafe, very stigmatizing space to go and use these services."
Parnham said the city will not allow them to continue operating, noting the society was told it needed an occupancy permit for the metal gazebo moved in place from their old location, alleging the city has used it as an excuse to halt all services provided by SNOW.
Pivot Legal Society lawyer Caitlin Shane has been contacted by SNOW over the legality of their site, and says the City of Dawson Creek can be superseded by the health authority and a need for services.
“I know that with SNOW House, the city has taken every measure to attempt to shut it down, whether it’s through these zoning bylaws or permit obligations, or even saying that it’s currently not within the proper zoning designation,” she said.
A ministerial order enacted in 2016 already gives health authorities the ability to provide overdose prevention services as necessary on an emergency basis, regardless of the wishes of a municipal government.
“The key factor is that it’s based on need – not based on whether a city wants it or not. If there is an ascertainable need in a community, there must be an overdose prevention site there,” said Shane. "There are absolutely powers that the health authority has to effectively serve this order however they deem necessary.”
City CAO Blair Lekstrom said the city understands the ministerial order, but is simply looking for courtesy and good judgment in opening OPS sites in Dawson Creek, as they only became aware of both the Nawican site and SNOW’s temporary location after blowback from concerned residents and local business owners.
“It comes to communication. I don’t think SNOW was malicious in their move, but they failed to communicate with and the city. Mayor and council have to answer to the businesses and the community and look after both sides,” he said.
At the meeting, councillor Shaely Wilbur claimed the community is no longer willing to support SNOW due to safety concerns about the temporary location, and wants to see the requirements from Northern Health on who can operate overdose prevention sites.
"We don't like to be reactive, we like to be proactive. This council supports supporting those who need services in our community. But not after the fact. It makes it really hard," said Wilbur. "Right now, they're not going to support you, not in this location."
The outreach house was formally approved by Northern Health last August, with a letter stating SNOW had met all the requirements to operate.
However, Wilbur said she's willing help SNOW with grants and finding a new location, with one building already suggested adjacent to their original 103 Avenue house.
Parnham says that’s not what the peers want or need – the new space would cost $2,800 monthly plus utilities to rent, a price they’re not able to afford. He added that the owner of their temporary 10th Street location is willing to buy another a space in town for the society.
"We're in a holding pattern right now, everything's at a complete standstill because Northern Health made a mistake on their end and proceeded without avid communication with the city," he said. "And so we're being painted under the same brush."
Last November, the city was approached by SNOW with concern about the city’s plan to revise a zoning bylaw to shift approval of harm reduction services and supervised consumption facilities to a case-by-case basis by the city.
It’s expected that a temporary use permit could be issued to SNOW, once a new city bylaw is put in place through three readings, a public hearing, and a spot zoning application, pushing their reopening date under the city to October or November.
Tom Summer, Alaska Highway News, Local Journalism Initiative.
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Tom Summer, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Alaska Highway News