Pubdate: Mon, 27 Feb 2017
Source: Globe and Mail (Canada)
Copyright: 2017 The Globe and Mail Company
Author: Andrea Woo
Page: S1


The first time Donna May walked down the stretch of road known as the
Surrey Strip, she felt afraid. The Mississauga resident had never
before seen such a concentration of drug use: 50 or 60 people,
sickness and addiction - a sense of desperation jarring against the
backdrop of a sunny winter's day. She remembered that no one was smiling.

"It was like walking from one world into another," Ms. May said of
that day in January, 2012, on 135A Street, the quiet stretch in the
Fraser Valley city that has become a semi-permanent homeless
encampment rife with drug use.

"I was very afraid. It really hit me how bad things get when you wait
for your child to hit rock bottom."

Ms. May had travelled from Ontario to care for her adult daughter, Jac
Gray, who had lived on the Strip before being hospitalized for serious
complications related to her intravenous drug use. She died eight
months later, at 35.

This month, five years after that first visit, Ms. May revisited the
Strip. Once a self-described Donna May

Woman who visited the Surrey Strip homeless encampment in 2012
searching for her daughter,

Jac Gray, now deceased "staunch Conservative," so put off by drug use
that she felt deeply ashamed of her own daughter, she returned as a
changed woman - a vocal advocate for drug policy reform who has taken
her case to Ottawa and the United Nations. She wondered if the Strip
had changed, too.

Like the rest of B.C., Surrey is in the midst of an overdose crisis;
110 people died of illicit-drug overdoses in 2016 - compared to the
10-year average of 45 - and another nine died last month.

The city has historically been reluctant to embrace harm reduction
measures. Mayor Linda Hepner opposed supervised injection sites as
recently as early 2016, but later softened to say they must be
connected to clinical facilities that offer treatment and recovery
options as well.

After years of calls from harm reduction advocates, the city recently
applied for federal approval to open two supervised injection sites.

In December, as overdose deaths in B.C. soared to record levels, the 
province announced it would immediately open numerous "overdose 
prevention sites" - bare-bones, indoor spaces where users can inject in 
the company of staffers trained to reverse overdoses - as an emergency 
measure while it awaited federal approval for the official sites. This 
included two overdose-prevention sites in Surrey: one at the Quibble 
Creek Sobering and Assessment Centre and one at a "mobile medical 
support unit" on the Surrey Strip, both to be opened by mid December.

But as of late February, no such sites exist in Surrey. Victoria Lee,
chief medical health officer for Fraser Health, said the health
authority instead chose to embed services at existing sites, for
example, expanding shelter hours, stationing a mobile medical unit on
the Strip to respond to overdoses and hiring new staff members for a
shelter and drop-in centre, both operated by the Lookout Emergency Aid

Suspected overdose events in the Fraser Health region have decreased
from 5.5 a day in December to 4.5 a day in February, Dr. Lee said,
suggesting these other strategies are working.

"The enhanced services that we have implemented across Surrey and
other communities, we are seeing some positive impacts [from]."

Still, Provincial Health Officer Perry Kendall, who announced the
overdose-prevention sites in December, said he was surprised and
disappointed to learn there were no indoor spaces available for drug
users in Surrey despite the recent ministerial orders.

"An overdose-prevention site is a place indoors where people can
inject with some supervision," he said. "We leave it up to the health
authorities to determine where a good place would be. But certainly,
we know that Surrey has an issue. It's a hotspot."

Meanwhile, a new 24-hour satellite law-enforcement office announced by
the city around the same time opened promptly. Front-line staff and
drug users on the Strip who spoke with The Globe and Mail said that
initial fears of increased harassment and intimidation never came to
pass, and that officers have been helpful in conducting welfare checks
each day.

But the idea of such a presence remains problematic for some. Dave
Diewert, who organizes with a group called Alliance Against
Displacement and communicates weekly with residents of the Strip,
questioned the reason for such a police presence and the interests
that presence services.

"If it were a matter of building relationships and directing people to
services as the police say, then why have cops with guns carry out
that job and not simply social workers?" he said.

Katrina Pacey, executive director of the Pivot Legal Society, echoed
the sentiment.

"I don't know that [health-service providers and government] fully
appreciate the impact that law enforcement has on the inaccessibility
of services, and the message that it sends," she said. "It continues
to send a message that this is a criminal law matter, that these
people are breaking the law, and that the police should be a first
responder in that context."

On a rainy day this month, Ms. May walked down the Strip for the first
time in five years, her heart heavy and her daughter in mind. She
knelt down and spoke with a young woman in a grey tent.

"Are you afraid of getting fentanyl in your drugs?"

"No. I'm not afraid of dying, no," the young woman replied. "I am
afraid of what it would do to my mom, though. That scares me. So
because of that, I'm careful."

"I wish I could help you." Ms. May continued on, stopping again to
speak with a group of police and emergency-room officials touring the
Strip. She introduced herself and one of the emergency-room nurses
said she remembered Jac. Their eyes welled with tears, and they embraced.

One officer told the group there is a "compelling case for
legalization" - an issue that Ms. May is pushing for. The officer's
comment surprised her.

At the Lookout, Ms. May spoke with two young front-line workers who
told her about available harm-reduction services, including that
almost everyone on the Strip is trained to use naloxone, a drug that
reverses the effects of an opioid overdose. After her daughter's
death, Ms. May had lobbied to make the drug available without a
prescription; Health Canada made that change last spring.

The Strip is both better and worse now, Ms. May feels: There are more
services available, but also a lot more people. The addition of tents
is new.

She spotted a street-side memorial: hundreds of names scribbled on
white poster board, with flowers, candles and stuffed toys placed before it.

"A wall of remembrance," she said quietly. Crouching before it, she
added a name in blue ballpoint pen: "JACY GRAY (my girl) XOX. Love you
forever and always."
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MAP posted-by: Matt