Pubdate: Sun, 05 Mar 2017
Source: Province, The (CN BC)
Copyright: 2017 Postmedia Network Inc.
Author: Nick Eagland
Page: 6


Community activist is saving overdose victims from dying in the back
alleys of the Downtown Eastside

It takes 15 minutes to walk the short distance across the street
market at Hastings and Columbia with Sarah Blyth, a volunteer with the
Overdose Prevention Society.

Everyone in this small, grungy Vancouver parking lot wants the ear of
the woman at the front line of the fentanyl crisis in the Downtown

Blyth founded the OPS last fall with others who had grown sick of
people dying in laneways after using tainted drugs.

On the way to the OPS trailer at the back of the lot, vendors rib her
about talking to the media, share off-colour jokes and offer up
conspiracy theories, knowing she'll give them her time.

Growing up with ADHD, substance dependence in her early years and
having suffered trauma she'd rather keep to herself, Blyth believes
she has developed empathy and lived experiences that help her relate
to the brutal stories the vendors tell.

Blyth was born July 13, 1972 in Sault Ste. Marie, Ont., to an opera
singer and violinist. The family moved to the University of B.C.
Endowment Lands a decade later.

Due to ADHD, Blyth struggled in school. Today, she often misplaces her
keys and has trouble keeping focus, she said.

Blyth dropped out in Grade 10 to work and snowboard, but was also
heavily into BMX and skateboarding.

It was the latter that got her interested in civic politics; in 1999
she and a friend opened an indoor skateboard park inside a warehouse.
City hall eventually shut them down for violating the fire code.

"We didn't really ask before we did it," she said.

Lamenting a lack of skateboarding facilities in the city, Blyth
created the Vancouver Skateboard Coalition, which helped bring five
skateboard parks to the city.

Over the next decade, she attended park board meetings and learned
about "that whole bureaucratic process."

Meanwhile, she began working for the Portland Hotel Society, first at
a homeless shelter and then as a mental-health worker.

In 2008, Blyth ran for the park board. She recalls a fierce
competition before being elected with 56,775 votes, behind just two
other commissioners.

It wasn't easy getting youth-friendly projects off the ground, like
kitesurfing, bike polo, a parkour course and a BMX park, she said.

But "a lot of times when people get all upset about something ... then
it's built, and they go down there and they say, 'This is really
cool,' " she said. Blyth was involved in the board's electric-vehicle
chargers and gender-neutral washrooms. She led work on cellphone
donations for seniors and the infamous Dude Chilling Park.

Her time on the board, while "fun," caused her stress, she said. She
bitterly recalls butting heads with Non-Partisan Association

In 2013, Blyth used Twitter to call NPA commissioner Melissa De Genova
a "liar." This led to calls for Blyth's ouster from the board. She
later apologized.

She left the park board in 2014, thinking she could be "just as useful
as an advocate," and to spend more time with her son, now 13.

It was around then, while she worked at a PHS assisted-living
facility, that she started to notice more overdoses and "people
falling down everywhere."

In September, Blyth and the OPS pitched a tent behind the street
market - a pop-up supervised-injection site - to stymie the death
toll, "knowing that the government has bureaucratic process and moves
slow, and sometimes really benefits from seeing something working,"
she said.

The tent is now a trailer and is supported by the Ministry of Health.
About 300 people visit the site each day.

Blyth herself has reversed dozens of overdoses using

"(The OPS) shouldn't really exist in the first place. What should
really exist is more programs like Crosstown," said Blyth, referring
to the Downtown Eastside health clinic where patients with opioid-use
disorder are given pure heroin substitutes for injection.

Instead, she continues to see the faces of community members on
posters announcing their deaths.

"There's no time to stop - to evaluate your emotions," Blyth

When the crisis finally ends, she hopes there will be time to process
what she has seen these past two years.

Asked about what legacy she hopes to leave, she joked about wanting a
street or park named in her honour - "Blyth Park" or "Blyth Street."

She then swept a hand toward the lane behind the trailer where people
smoke crack and, still smiling, said: "I'll probably get this alley
named after me."
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MAP posted-by: Matt