By Lethbridge Herald on June 11, 2018.
As the opioid crisis burns through the veins of the city’s most vulnerable, the frontline staff of the supervised consumption site are saving lives and holding fast to the idea they are doing the right thing.
This, in spite of a community that does not always understand their work — or worse — reviles them for it.
ARCHES is the organization in charge of managing the SCS and a focal point for community backlash. In recent months, the organization has come under fire for needle debris blamed on their clean needle program, and have been blamed for exacerbating the city’s drug problem with the opening of the SCS.
The staff, in the meantime, are being forced to bear witness to the opioid crisis firsthand — and it is forcing them to deal with trauma of their own.
“The reality is when you come into a job day after day, and you are constantly having to deal with other people’s trauma … it wears on you,” said Stacey Bourque, ARCHES Executive Director. “Burnout is really high in this field.”
ARCHES is a harm reduction organization. Its job is to connect with vulnerable people, build relationships with them, and then move them along a spectrum into other areas of care and towards wellness.
In Lethbridge, that spectrum is fractured. There are gaps in services. The city has a limited number of treatment beds. There are long waiting lists. The city lacks transitional and supportive housing.
“We are an entry point into service and we’re meant to move them along the spectrum,” Bourque said. (But) the spectrum doesn’t exist. It makes it very difficult.
“Essentially, we’re a hamster in a wheel. We’re trying to keep people alive long enough that they get to make that decision (to enter treatment) on a day when there is a treatment bed available and they are ready to go.”
Staff at the SCS face death daily. There have been 160 overdoses prevented at the SCS; 530 addicts have used the site 19,000 times since it opened in February. About 76 per cent of those using the site are multiple users.
Those numbers are expected to grow as the opioid crisis expands. The SCS is already past capacity and is expanding to meet demand.
“This is truly an epidemic-sized public-health crisis we’re dealing with,” said Bourque. “And year over year, we see the issue double in size.
“The bigger it grows, the more prevalent and more visible it becomes.”
For some in the community, the SCS has sharpened the issue to a point. At one time, drug use was easy to ignore in Lethbridge. When it became concentrated in a five-block radius around the SCS, it was suddenly impossible to ignore. Now, local residents can get in their cars, day or night, and drive through the heart of the opioid crisis. They can see the impact first hand, and count the lives that are being destroyed.
“It’s a very difficult situation,” said Bourque. “We’re a medical facility that deals with shelter-like behaviours on a regular basis.”
SCS users are a complex needs population who require a lot of mental health and addiction support. The staff provide that support every shift.
“They are on high alert every time they come into work,” said Bourque.
“And we work in a very contentious field.”
Every day, staff work a difficult shift with a very difficult population of people — people they care about. It’s not a job many would want. It’s a job even fewer can handle.
And they come home to controversy. It’s on social media. They see it in traditional media. They might hear it from friends and family. As the recognized face of ARCHES, Bourque has even been confronted in the community. Sure, it’s not everyone. There are supporters out there, and ARCHES has seen an increase in volunteers. But there is a lot of anger.
People who don’t agree with what ARCHES is doing. People who don’t understand it.
Bourque refuses to be shaken by it.
“We’re not here to get people to drink the Kool-Aid,” she said. “This isn’t a situation where we expect everyone to agree with us on a moral basis.”
Bourque says it is important to remember we are all one or two choices or circumstances away from having everything pulled out from underneath us.
“There are very few people you’ll encounter that use drugs who want to use drugs,” she said. “Nobody wakes up when they are six years old and says, ‘You know what I want to be when I grow up? A heroin user. And gee, if I could be homeless, that would be wonderful.’”
She says addiction is not a moral failing, and it’s not society’s responsibility to fix drug users. It is the job of ARCHES to support them until they are ready to take that step into care themselves.
“I believe in what we’re doing as an organization,” she said. “I know harm reduction is the way forward, and I know the community will see positive results from the initiatives we are implementing. (But) I know it’s difficult.”
Bourque knows there is life after recovery. She’s seen it in former users.
“It does happen,” she said. “We see it through a lot different avenues and there is a reason why we do what we do.
“There are mornings I wake up to a text that says, ‘Two years today. Thank you for my life back.’
“If the least we could have done is keeping them alive so they can make that decision, then we’ve done our job.”
Really, it’s all about perspective.
“We are parents,” Bourque said. “We are aunts and uncles. We’re siblings. We live in this community as well. We pay taxes. We understand the implications and the impact the drug crisis is having. But I remind my staff on a regular basis:
“We didn’t cause this problem. We’re responding to the problem.”
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