Deaths in relation to the current opioid crisis are becoming a part of everyday life on the streets of Penticton.
Bundled up against the bitter, cold December wind, Jerome Abraham and Nikki Kehla make their midday rounds in the mobile outreach van.
Their route includes stops in areas where street people and the homeless gather, like the Soupateria and the nearby Burdock House housing units that opened earlier this year.
Among the more popular items they hand out from the back of the van operated by the South Okanagan Women in Need Society (SOWINS) are harm reduction kits for safe drug use and Naloxone kits, used to reverse overdoses.
“We’re seeing between 40 and 80 people, which is a fair amount I guess. We’re just making sure everyone has clean supplies,” said Abraham, who is also the executive director of Discovery House men’s addiction recovery centre and former addict himself. “We give them harm reduction supplies, socks, gloves, water and (we’re) just connecting with people that are maybe homeless.
“I think, personally, the opioid crisis has been happening since the 1980s and 1970s. It’s just now with fentanyl it’s killing more people.”
He pointed to residences like the 62-unit Burdock House that has 24/7 support for its residents as having a huge, positive impact for high risk individuals.
“The opioid problem is acute but having a place like this that we’re standing in front of is really helpful as far as preventing deaths stemming from it,” said Abraham. “There’s 62 people in there that were on the street last winter when I started.”
He spoke to one of those residents just the other day.
“That person had been living at the dog park at Okanagan Beach and I told him he seems a lot more calm and stable,” he said of their conversation. “The fellow said yes, getting a good night’s sleep, sleeping inside, just the simple things most people take for granted, you can go to sleep and you’re not going to get robbed, not going to get beat up and (not) out in the elements just trying to survive the night.”
Half a block away from where the van is set up, Kevin and some friends are walking back from the Soupateria where they just ate lunch.
They’re gathering at the Winnipeg entrance to St. Saviour’s Church.
Around the corner, several other people meet up alongside the church wall. Drugs and money change hands and two people begin using.
“Yeah, it’s bad alright,” said Kevin, who asked his last name not be used. “There is a problem and I think each person out here has their reason for doing drugs but mostly I think it’s just to numb the pain of living on the streets.
“I was reading they’re trying to make it harder to get harm reduction (kits) and that will be terrible. You get a few people that spoil it for everybody leaving stuff (like) needles behind but we’re not all like that.”
He recalled an incident where one of the street people he knew deliberately overdosed himself.
“He was an old fella, he waited for everybody to walk away and then he just dropped himself,” said Kevin. “I think he was just sick of being out in the cold and being looked down on by everybody so he just wanted to end it.
“But bylaws (City of Penticton bylaw officers) were there and narcanned (Naloxone) him and brought him back. They actually (cared), a lot of people don’t.”
Kevin tries to work when he can, things like shovelling snow. “Do you know how hard it is to have a job and sleep on cold cement with people throwing apples at you? It’s (expletive removed) terrible, it’s horrible.”
But there are also the people who do care, like the couple who regularly stops by in the evenings bringing with them hot chocolate, soup and granola bars, along with others like those who operate the mobile outreach van and the Soupateria.
“We just can’t thank them enough, people who don’t judge you but just want to help, no matter what our problems are, we are still people not the bottom of somebody’s shoe.