‘Yes’ in my backyard

Fernwood residents now ready to support a fixed-site needle exchange

It might not look like much from the outside, but Vancouver Island Health Authority’s two new Victoria needle-exchange locations mean a lot to all residents.

Fernwood residents now ready to support a fixed-site needle exchange

A fixed-site needle exchange can be described as nothing if not contentious, but thanks to support from residents in Fernwood, one will again find a home.

After Victoria’s only fixed-site needle exchange on Cormorant Street closed more than four years ago due to pressure from residents, it came as a surprise to many when the Vancouver Island Health Authority (VIHA) announced its plans this past December to expand not one, but two health service hubs offering harm reduction services. Both “Hub One” at 713 Johnson and “Hub Two” at 1123 Pembroke will offer a needle exchange and more.

While many residents are still holding onto the not-in-my-back-yard (NIMBY) view, a growing number of Fernwood residents are in complete support.

“Anyone who finds a needle in their neighbourhood is going to be upset by it,” says Andrea Langlois. “I also think if a child or dog had ever been poked by a needle, we’d have heard about it. What upsets me is that I think people are using the word ‘needle’ to really mean ‘a certain type of person’ isn’t welcome.”

Langlois has owned a home in Fernwood for three years. She is two blocks away from the Pembroke site.

“I moved to Fernwood because it’s an eclectic, inclusive culture,” she says. “We work with our neighbours.”

The Cook Street Health Unit was termed Hub Two with the December roll out. The new services will expand on those already in place, including addictions group counselling for those in early recovery, sobriety assessment, rehabilitation and skill-developing, and enhanced harm reduction supplies — including clean needles.

Clients can access primary care services on evenings and weekends, and will benefit from stronger connections to housing and support facilities, art and related activities, peer support and aboriginal services.

“As a parent of a six-year-old, we’re concerned about safety. These people [who use drugs] are a part of my community. They’re part of our fabric and I’m proud to tell my son, ‘this is how we treat people in our community,’” says Eric Kaye, four-year home owner and former director of the Fernwood Community Association.

On the subject of depreciating housing values, he adds, “I don’t buy it. I used to live across from a transitional house and no one even noticed it was there.”

But while the success of harm-reduction has been backed up with scientific studies, in a culture that condemns drugs and the people who use them, the fear NIMBY supporters are expressing makes sense.

“It’s important to note that harm reduction doesn’t condone drug use. It simply seeks to service a problem that’s already there. I’ve seen surveys that show people support these services by about 50 per cent, so I’m sure there are more people in Fernwood who are pro harm reduction and aren’t saying much because they are already in agreement with VIHA,” says Kathleen Perkin, Fernwood resident since 2005.

“This is a proven way to combat the spread of disease.”

Adverse reactions to the fixed-site needle service haven’t come from out of the blue. City Coun. Lisa Helps can see why people are having a difficult time getting on board with VIHA’s plans.

“I actually completely understand where those opposed are coming from. Cormorant Street was such a disaster. That’s the picture people have [of a fixed-sight needle exchange], but there are two significant differences with the Pembroke and Johnson Street locations,” says Helps. “First, Cormorant was run by AVI [AIDS Vancouver Island] and it had far less funding. They had more and more people coming and could serve fewer and fewer. Second, VIHA has had a complete change in perspective and began viewing this as a health issue. That’s the part I’m most excited about.”

Helps says she’s always thought access to these services was a health issue.

“It’s a health issue for drug users and it’s a health issue for those finding needles. The entire model is [now] different,” she says. “It’s right in the name ‘Access Health Centre’ and it’s run by the Vancouver Island Health Authority.” M

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