Unprecedented heat wave and a new toxic drug could lead to 'lethal' weekend on streets of Prince George

·4 min read
Volunteers are distributing water and other supplies to people living in a homeless encampment in Prince George, B.C. The city says the camp must be shutdown by June 27 as Environment Canada forecasts highs of 38 C. (Andrew Kurjata/CBC - image credit)
Volunteers are distributing water and other supplies to people living in a homeless encampment in Prince George, B.C. The city says the camp must be shutdown by June 27 as Environment Canada forecasts highs of 38 C. (Andrew Kurjata/CBC - image credit)

An unprecedented heat wave combined with the arrival of a new toxic drug known as "fire" poses a potentially fatal risk to vulnerable people living in Prince George, B.C., this weekend, advocates are warning.

On top of the soaring temperatures and poisoned drug supply, vulnerable people in the community are also facing eviction from a homeless encampment that residents say has given them a sense of safety and stability.

The combined threats have Jordan Stewart scrambling to get ready.

"We have a mountain of Gatorade, we have lots of sunscreen," she said from her office at POUNDS, an drop-in overdose prevention site in downtown Prince George.

POUNDS will be expanding its hours during the heatwave to provide people with a safe place to avoid the heat, and will also provide shuttle services and water delivery to and from known homeless camps in the community. Still, Stewart is worried about people's safety.

"Honestly, I'm very nervous," she said.

Andrew Kurjata/CBC
Andrew Kurjata/CBC

As of Thursday, Environment Canada has issued a heat warning for the region and is forecasting highs of 35 C on Sunday and up to 38 C on Monday and Tuesday.

That kind of heat is virtually unheard of in Prince George, where average June temperatures are in the low 20s and the all-time record is 38.9 C, set in July 1941.

Meanwhile, Northern Health has issued an overdose alert for Prince George after recording a higher-than-usual number of overdoses in a city that already has some of the highest rates of drug deaths in the province.

A dark purple substance known as "fire" is highly toxic and is being sold as "down or fentanyl," the health authority said in a release.

Watch: Jordan Stewart says a weekend heatwave could be fatal to vulnerable people

Stewart says combined with the heat, the new contamination in the local drug supply could be deadly.

"If an individual is unconscious for an hour or two because they're heavily sedated, the effects of that kind of heat could be fatal, very quickly," she said.

Homeless camp evictions looming

Adding to the challenges are eviction notices that have gone up at two homeless encampments in the community — one downtown on George Street, the other in an industrial area on Patricia Boulevard. The city is warning people they have to leave the George Street camp Friday and the Patricia Boulevard camp on Monday, or face fines and arrest.

The city says it has recorded a dramatic increase in bylaw complaints from people living and working near the camps regarding open drug use, harassment and open burning.

Andrew Kurjata/CBC
Andrew Kurjata/CBC

A city spokesperson said they are hoping for "voluntary compliance" over the weekend, with council set to discuss next steps at their regular Monday meeting.

But residents of the encampments say they have no plans to leave.

"This is a good place for us... . Out of sight, out of mind," said Janice George, who lives in the Patricia Boulevard camp.

About three dozen tents are in the encampment, which residents say they set up to avoid complaints from downtown businesses.

Andrew Kurjata/CBC
Andrew Kurjata/CBC

A nearby hill covered with trees and the dirt ground also make it a better place to avoid the heat, said Darlene LaRose.

"I feel safe here; it's more comfortable away from everybody," she said.

Additionally, residents say they enjoy a sense of safety and stability they don't feel when they are made to move between shelters and the street every day.

"I really hope we get to stay because it is nice to have some place to go, because it's nice not to have to pack up and walk and walk and walk everyday," said George.

BC Housing aims to get people inside

Meanwhile, BC Housing is responding to complaints that the existing shelter system in Prince George is inadequate to meet the needs of unhoused people.

One barrier that has been identified is the requirement that people not use drugs while accessing services in three of four Prince George shelters — something BC Housing said will soon change.

"We understand this operating model works for some but does not necessarily meet the needs of everyone experiencing homelessness," BC Housing said in a written statement.

The housing agency said it is working with Northern Health to establish overdose prevention spaces in all its Prince George shelters by the end of next week, while continuing with the construction of new supportive housing projects set to open later this year.

It is also opening cooling spaces in all shelters over the weekend, and staff will be distributing water to people outdoors.

Andrew Kurjata/CBC
Andrew Kurjata/CBC
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