Victoria drug users need decentralized services, faster treatment access: Island Health director

On any given night, up to 80 people can be found huddled around the closed doors of a safe consumption site in downtown Victoria.

The 900 block of Pandora Avenue is home to The Harbour, a safe consumption site that closes at 8 p.m. Afraid of overdosing and using alone, drug users have taken to sleeping outside the site after-hours.

It's an "unacceptable" sign that addiction support services are not enough to meet the demand from users, according to the local health authority's director of mental health and addictions.

Kelly Reid at Island Health says while the province has "invested heavily" in evidence-based treatment and opioid replacement treatment, reducing wait times for addicts seeking treatment and decentralizing substance support services would help the current situation in B.C.'s capital.

In 2017, the B.C. government allocated $322 million over three years to address the overdose crisis, with $170 million dedicated to enhancing treatment services, provider training and outreach.

According to Reid, the authority has invested $6 million over the past 18 months in harm reduction and treatment services but still hasn't been able "to find a set of services that meet all the needs of the vulnerable."

"Ideally, we would like to be able to give treatment right away," said Reid, adding some users have to wait days, sometimes weeks, before they can access a treatment bed. 

Victoria Mayor Lisa Helps has also called for increased access to long-term treatment, saying there are not enough "accompanying services" for people who need it.

"People are being laddered right back out on to Pandora and that is completely unacceptable, both from the perspective of the public and from the perspective of people who need treatment and treatment beds," said the mayor.

Photo courtesy of Our Place Society

Reid told On The Island host Gregor Craigie that expanded community out-patient services would also be helpful, "as opposed to everybody coming to one spot."

He said he would prefer to see small service hubs in multiple communities for people in need of substance use support, which could reduce the pressure on some sites, including along Pandora Avenue. The street is also home to Our Place Society, which provides services for the city's homeless.

Reid called the scene on the street's 900 block "tragic to see" and added that the crowd is fear driven and desperate. 

"I know there is concern about congregation, but many lives are being saved there," said Reid.

There are four safe consumption sites in Victoria, but Reid said there is also a need for a safe inhalation site. The only current site is at the city's Rock Bay Shelter and use is restricted to shelter residents.

"We know a lot of individuals inhale or smoke," he said, telling Craigie that an inhalation site in the downtown area is "something that is definitely on our radar."

Reid added that even with increased funding and services, there will be challenges.

"I wish it was as easy as engaging and then offering treatment, but people are at different levels of readiness for recovery," he said. "We want to make sure we are investing equally in harm reduction and treatment."

To hear the complete interview with Kelly Reid, click on the audio link below: