Abbotsford homeless camp flooded out, advocates fear jump in toxic drug deaths

Now that of the Sumas Way encampment have been split up, harm reduction workers worry their displacement will lead to more people in the community using illicit substances alone, farther from life-saving interventions.

Vancouver Sun 3 minute read November 24, 2021

Health advocates worry that toxic drug deaths in Abbotsford could rise after floodwaters displaced many of the city’s homeless.

People living in a 50-person encampment on the edge of Sumas Prairie fled for higher ground Nov. 15 after being warned of flood danger.

“Creek waters beside tents were rising after the rain,” recalled Jesse Wegenast, executive director of 5 and 2 Ministries, a nonprofit that distributed harm reduction supplies including sterile needles and naloxone to residents of the streamside camp.

The evacuation alert prompted some tent-dwellers to hitch rides to emergency shelters. Others moved elsewhere outdoors.

“The displacement was a problem. Any time there is an interruption to routine services, vulnerabilities increase – there’s no question about that,” Wegenast said.

Brittany Maple is the director of Matsqui-Abbotsford Impact Society which oversees a network of drug survivors who provide harm-reduction services. She said, “when people are displaced like this, so is their natural community.”

At the Sumas Way encampment, overdoses are common. But so are life-saving reversals — “because peers there are looking out for one another,” Maple said.

“People in the encampment use drugs together and carry naloxone in case of emergency. The fast-acting medication reverses overdoses,” Wegenast added.

Now that members of the encampment have been split up, harm reduction workers worry their displacement will lead to more people in the community using illicit substances alone, farther from life-saving interventions.

An alert issued by Fraser Health Authority last week warned of a dark-purple substance marketed as opioids being linked to multiple overdoses in Abbotsford and Mission.

“Peer workers have been working really hard to mitigate the overdose risks because of the alert,” Maple said. “Some are finding it more difficult to ensure the whereabouts and safety of their clients.”

One of them, Grace Unruh with Drug War Survivors, has lived in a tent for five years with her husband, who’s a regular user of opioids.

“I’ve found my husband lifeless from overdose six times already, the first was on Christmas Eve last year,” she said. “I gave him naloxone, he came back to life.”

In her harm reduction work, Unruh has also seen the worst of outcomes.

“I’ve known people who walked out of sight down railroad tracks or behind buildings, they overdosed and by the time we found them it was too late. I’m telling everybody I can, not to use drugs alone because of this.”

In an email, Fraser Health said extreme flooding in Abbotsford has caused “serious consequences … people from all lifestyles struggle with substance use and our priority is to ensure that those individuals are taken care of.”

The health authority said harm reduction resources are available at evacuation centres and “outreach teams in the community are seeking out individuals who may require additional support.”

A coordinated effort by Archway Community Services, Abbotsford Restorative Justice, 5 and 2 Ministries and the Drug War Survivors led to the city’s first drop-in harm reduction service centre, which opened in central Abbotsford last week.

“People now have a place to come in get warm and pick up clean needles while storing their carts,” Unruh said.

sgrochowski@postmedia.com