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Report Says Winnipeg Mobile Overdose Prevention Site ‘Surpassing All Expectations’

April 18, 2024 1:38 PM | The Canadian Press

By Brittany Hobson, The Canadian Press

Mobile Overdose Prevention Site

A mobile overdose prevention site is shown in Winnipeg in this undated handout photo. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO, Sunshine House)

WINNIPEG — A mobile overdose prevention site in Winnipeg has seen tens of thousands of visits from people looking to access services or use drugs in a safe setting — more than double what was initially anticipated, says a review of the site’s first year in operation.

From October 2022 to October 2023, there were 26,154 visits to the site run by Sunshine House, a drop-in and resource centre, said the report released Thursday.

More than 7,000 of these visits were by individuals looking to consume drugs. There were 20 overdoses, four trips to hospital at the individual’s request and no deaths.

Sunshine House hired the LAHRK Consulting firm to prepare the report, which is based on data collected at the site, as well as interviews, focus groups and surveys. Researchers spoke with more than 600 people for the review.

Kerniel Aasland, one of the lead consultants, said the site is exceeding almost every benchmark set out in Sunshine House’s initial proposal.

“There’s a lot of people who come to the mobile overdose prevention site for a whole range of reasons, only one of which is to actually consume drugs,” he said.

“There’s a lot of people who are looking for support, who are looking for connection, who are looking for services, and the mobile overdose prevention site was able to provide that.”

The site also distributed harm reduction supplies, including clean needles and pipes. Hundreds of tests were also done on drugs using a machine that analyzes their chemical makeup.

The report said the success of the program goes beyond the numbers.

An overwhelming number of people interviewed spoke about profound impact the site has had on vulnerable individuals, community organizations and Winnipeg’s core neighbourhood.

“Overall, (the site) has … demonstrated the need for this service through the sheer number of visits, relationships and bonds that have been made. This program has saved lives and changed lives, and continues to serve Winnipeg’s vulnerable populations with care and compassion,” the review said.

The site was started in October 2022 in response to the growing toxic drug crisis that has swept across Canada. The report said many other provinces responded by providing supervised places for people to use drugs with sterile equipment and supplies in a monitored space.

Sunshine House initially received funding from the federal government to run the site. It has relied on grants, donations and crowdfunding to keep it running.

The site operates out of a recreational vehicle that travels around Winnipeg’s core five days a week. It is overseen by a co-ordinator and run by staff and people Sunshine House calls peers — those who have used drugs or currently use them.

The report credits the peers for creating a warm and welcoming environment.

“This program is the perfect example of the magic that can happen when you give people who use drugs the opportunities, agency and respect they deserve,” said Ally Seidlitz, a peer support co-ordinator.

The number of peer workers has tripled since the site opened, said Seidlitz, and they have also been able to take life-saving courses, get housing and reconnect with family.

Despite its success, Sunshine House said the site is not a sustainable solution to the crisis.

“Having 3,000 visits in a month at an RV in a parking lot in the middle of winter is not an effective health-care model,” said executive director Levi Foy.

He added conversations about harm reduction need to include talk of safe drug supply.

In a study released this week, researchers from the University of Toronto found opioid-related deaths doubled in Canada between 2019 and the end of 2021, with the Prairie provinces experiencing a dramatic jump.

Manitoba saw the sharpest rise in opioid-related overdose deaths for those aged 30 to 39, reaching 500 deaths per million population — more than five times the 89 deaths per million population recorded at the beginning of the study period.

The overdose site reportsaid more needs to be done to address the “gaping chasm” of services offered by the health-care and public health systems in Manitoba, including access to housing and mental health and addiction supports.

It also advocated for the creation of several supervised consumption sites in Winnipeg.

Manitoba’s NDP government has committed to help fund a safe consumption site in the city that would open next year.

Housing, Addictions and Homelessness Minister Bernadette Smith said Thursday the government is speaking with community groups about what the space could look like.

“One death is too many in this province, and we are working as fast as we can,” she said.

“We’re really working to make sure that we get it right.”

Foy said Sunshine House has enough funding to operate into the summer and is sourcing additional options.

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