New mobile overdose prevention van in Abbotsford 'will save lives'

People who lived in the camp have fatally overdosed, advocates say. The van will be staffed by people who can help with ODs and provide other support.

Lori Culbert 3 minute read January 26, 2022

Fraser Health has opened a mobile overdose-prevention site beside a large homeless camp in Abbotsford, where dozens of people live in rundown trailers and derelict shelters among piles of garbage.

Advocates say they feed between 60 and 90 people who live in or near the camp, and confirm there have been fatal overdoses among the vulnerable residents.

The customized van with medical supplies is parked at Lonzo Road and Sumas Way by the homeless camp, and will be open daily from noon to 6 p.m. It will be staffed by harm-reduction workers who can witness people using drugs and provide help when needed, Fraser Health said in a statement.

Homeless encampment in Abbotsford. (Arlen Redekop / PNG ) Arlen Redekop / PNG

Staff will also hand out naloxone kits and can offer to connect people to services that include mental-health and substance-use supports.

“We must continue to think outside the box and find new ways to connect people to care,” Dr. Victoria Lee, Fraser Health CEO, said in the statement.

“An increasingly unpredictable and toxic drug supply combined with the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic are affecting people from all walks of life.”

Coroners Service data shows seven people suffered fatal overdoses in 2014 in Abbotsford, which has a population of roughly 150,000 people, but after the overdose crisis was declared in 2016, the number of deaths skyrocketed to 68 last year.

Terry Brock with Lookout Housing and Health Society, which will partner with Fraser Health to run the van, said “the new mobile overdose prevention service is very much needed in Abbotsford.”

Postmedia wrote about the Abbotsford homeless camp on Saturday, to illustrate the growing need for more affordable housing with built-in supports for marginalized people who struggle with mental health challenges, drug addictions, or both.

But Abbotsford is not alone. The mayors of many B.C. cities and suburbs have repeatedly asked the provincial government for “complex-care” housing, to help desperate people who are “hard to house” and therefore falling through the cracks of the traditional health and housing systems.

Simon Fraser University’s Centre for Applied Research in Mental Health and Addiction estimates there are 2,200 British Columbians with these types of complex needs, based on their mental illness and drug dependencies, and their repeated use of hospitals, jails and shelters.

Last week, the province took the first step toward answering the mayors’ request: It vowed to spend $4.8 million this year to create 103 new complex-care beds in supported-housing facilities in Vancouver (56 beds), Surrey (39 beds) and Abbotsford (eight beds). The services offered by this program will include medical, mental health and substance-use care, as well as personal, cultural, social and job supports.

Sheila Malcolmson, minister of mental health and addictions, said last week that this is an area of priority for her government and that whether more beds will be created will be up to the finance minister in next month’s budget.

In the meantime, she said on Monday that the new van in Abbotsford “will save lives.”

Saada Mohammed works in Fraser Health’s new mobile overdose prevention site van, to be parked daily by a large homeless camp in Abbotsford. Photo courtesy of Fraser Health Authority. Fraser Health Authority

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