By Kalinowski, Tim on January 12, 2019.
Being out on a limb is a lonely place at the best of times, and then to have a certain vocal group of citizens demanding the branch you are on be sawed off – let’s just say it tends to add another dimension to that loneliness.
As the Supervised Consumption Site approaches its first-year anniversary in the community, ARCHES executive director Stacey Bourque sits at her desk in her office at the SCS, the smell of sweetgrass gently scenting the air, and reflects on a year of challenges and triumphs, the battles and the lives saved.
“I think everyone is surprised at how many people use this facility,” says Bourque. “We knew we had an issue in Lethbridge, and we knew we needed the service. I don’t think anyone could have predicted the level of need or the volume that this facility would be used.”
“We are at probably 1,050 unique service users at this point in less than a year,” Bourque explains by way of example. “When we start looking at Calgary, for instance, a city 10 times the size of Lethbridge, their facility at the one-year point had seen 42,000 visits with an average of 204 visits a day and had reversed around 650 overdoses. In a 10-month period we saw 128,000 visits, we average well over 600 visits a day, and had reversed 1,392 overdoses. There really is no comparison when we’re looking at other communities.”
Bourque tours The Herald around the Supervised Consumption Site proper. It’s mid-afternoon and one of the slowest times of day for users, but even then people are everywhere. Staff move around the facility to check on users and ensure they have what they need to be safe. Small groups gather in every corner to socialize or share information. Some sit and wait for their turn to shoot up. Others hang out and use their phones in the lounge area as they come down. The atmosphere is orderly and calm with quiet pop music floating in over the speakers.
People look up with curiosity and a certain amount of wariness as Bourque, whom they know and trust, brings these strangers into their midst. Bourque explains some have been burned before by use of their images without permission by local media outlets, and most of the clients keep up with the news through social media and are aware of the sometimes dehumanizing things said about them by those who don’t understand their addictions.
“Every life holds value,” she says, “and it is important to remember that above all else when we are looking at services, whether or not we agree with the moral foundation of what that service is doing.”
Bourque says ARCHES willingly took on all the challenges of the Supervised Consumption Site when the organization agreed to run it, and now willingly bears up under the sometimes withering criticism of those who have little understanding of what they do, and do not care to learn. ARCHES employs 160 staff members, many at the SCS, who know the value of their own work, she says, even if it is not always appreciated by those wanting easy answers to the drug crisis.
“It’s nothing for our staff to address nine or 10 overdoses on a shift, and it takes a tremendous personal toll,” Bourque confirms. “Our staff has built up relationships with the participants in this program, and everything is life and death. We are constantly in emergency mode. As far as I am concerned they are heroes and they deserve our support.”
And, frighteningly, Bourque says the situation is getting worse as more potent opioids make their way into Lethbridge.
“Every month from July our overdose numbers have increased in the facility,” she confirms.
Bourque says she is encouraged by two recent developments which may actually help the situation. First, the Supervised Consumption Site now has the ability to hook users up with a doctor through TeleHealth who can instantly them give a prescription for Suboxone, a common form of agonist opioid therapy, to start them on the way to getting clean as soon as they want. Secondly, Bourque is encouraged by the provincial announcement at the end of last year for new intox, detox and supportive housing in the community.
“I think like everyone else I am optimistic there are other support services coming for people who use substances,” she says, “and they really needed to be here a long time ago. Addiction services have to operate on a continuum. No one service working in isolation is going to affect significant change, and it keeps people stuck. Because even if there is a desire for change, having those other services there is really important. On the other hand, I know the timelines for implementing them are not immediate, so there is a period of time where we’re going to have to function without them.”
Maybe that lonely limb may get a little less lonely as these wrap-around services establish themselves in the community, but Bourque says ARCHES will continue its mission to save lives regardless of what else may come.
“We will just keep doing our best to keep people alive until those options are available,” she says.
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