The headlines early this fall were shocking. Kelowna had been identified as Canada’s OD Capital, and the battle against fentanyl, deadly overdoses and opioid addiction that have raged for the past two years continues.
The face of drug abuse in British Columbia is ever-changing. Overdoses are occurring far more frequently in private residences - where users are alone - than on the streets. According to Dr. Trevor Corneil, Chief Medical Health Officer for Interior Health, the highest incident rate is amongst males aged 30 to 49.
Kelowna’s death rate of 44.3 deaths per 100,000 people is slightly higher than Vancouver’s downtown east side. There have been 46 overdose deaths between January 1 and June 30, and it is projected that by the end of 2017 overdose deaths will double. Fentanyl has been detected in 90 per cent of fatal overdose cases.
Yet amongst all the despair and frightening realities, there are unsung heroes who are helping – behind the scenes or on the front lines – and making a difference in individual lives. They are often under-funded or overworked, but commitment and passion almost uniformly drive their efforts.
From her office on Asher Road, Sheila Kerr of Living Positive Resource Centre works with clients who face a range of issues from people suffering from HIV or Hepatitis C, to drug users and the homeless. They offer a broad spectrum of services, including detox referrals and the distribution of harm reduction supplies, to name but a few.
Sheila’s philosophy is simple. She believes that every individual life is valuable. Her goal is to ensure that everyone is treated with compassion and kindness, and to help elevate their lives to the best it can possibly be.
“I try to protect people’s health by reducing illness, injuries and death by unsafe substance use. We’re in the business of keeping people alive,” she explains.
Sheila’s first position at Living Positive was in 1999 when she began to volunteer there. Living Positive started as an HIV organization, to assist individuals who could be at risk for HIV or Hepatitis C including those people living outdoors or low income earners.
Echoing recent statistics, Sheila points out that 58 per cent of overdose deaths take place in a private residences. As of the end of August 2016, BC experienced 547 deaths. This year the number stands at 1,013 – a 79 per cent increase. And it isn’t just heroin users who are losing their lives. After fentanyl, the number two drug is actually cocaine, says Sheila.
That is frightening because it opens up a whole new market of users – those who use drugs on a recreational basis from time to time. In terms of “party drugs,” cocaine makes up 47.6 per cent of usage and heroin 32.8 per cent. Because of the contamination of those drugs with fentanyl, people are dying alone.
Living Positive is a busy place, and some days they see upwards of thirty to sixty people.
“There is a deep stigma in regard to drug use, a hierarchy of what is acceptable. At the top of that list is wine or beer, then prescription drugs, cocaine and pot. The real stigma comes with those who use heroin, crack cocaine or crystal meth,” says Sheila. “It is not just typical stereotypes we see. People come in after work or in uniform. A lot of them are concerned about anonymity. “
A big part of their effort is to bring awareness to the fact that not all users are visible. The stigma creates such deep shame that people are afraid to ask for help, Sheila said.
“There is a dire need for more detox and recovery beds in Kelowna. The system is overwhelmed. There is no real transition facility for people who are between detox and recovery. Wait too long for recovery and relapses can happen,” she said.
Why take on all of this? Sheila says it goes back to the basic desire to value every individual life and treat human beings with dignity.
“I love working here. This place has raised me. I love the people I work with and those who access services. Many of them are now volunteers here.”
Okanagan Woman readers have followed the path that unfolded after Helen Jennens lost her two sons to drug overdoses. Helen says overdoses are now being described as ‘opioid poisonings’ and for good reason. Due to the fentanyl contamination of drugs like heroin or cocaine, these overdoses are now recognised as opioid poisonings.
A leading spokesperson on Kelowna’s drug scene, Helen was instrumental in organizing Kelowna’s first International Overdose Awareness Day on August 31. Hundreds of friends, families and people from all walks of life honoured the lives of those who were taken from them. The key message was compassion, not judgement and the mood reflected just that.
“When drug misuse disorder is recognized as a disease and treated with the same care as other diseases, we may turn the tide toward more permanent solutions,” Helen says.