As the overdose crisis continues to grip B.C., a group of front lines advocates want to see words like “junkies” and “scum” scrubbed from the public dialogue.
Their call comes at a particularly poignant time for the women at the South Okanagan Women In Need Society’s SAFExst program. Within a week, the staff lost two clients to overdoses, including one who had grown exceptionally close to the staff.
A picture of Emma, whose real name is being protected for privacy reasons, hangs in support worker Christie Fiebelkorn’s office, which she proudly shows off.
In the picture, Emma is playing with Fiebelkorn’s dog, holding up a stick as the dog prepares to jump up and grab it. Her head is at an angle, but a smile on Emma’s face is obvious from the picture.
“I met her in August of last year, and when I met her last year, she kind of identified that she didn’t have any supports and no one that was wanting to work with her. She actually told me to F-off,” Fiebelkorn added with a laugh — one of few in an emotional interview.
“And then I saw her about three days later, pulling her suitcase, and I kind of just stopped and offered to buy her food.”
Emma made a connection with Fiebelkorn like she hadn’t made in previous efforts, before landing in jail, where Fiekelborn said she appeared to spin gold out of the programs available to her.
“Actually, that’s where our relationship grew the best,” Fiebelkorn said. “She contacted our office regularly. Three times a day. Like, ‘you’re never going to guess what I did today. I got another alcohol and drug module completed.’ Or, ‘you’re never going to guess, I finished my Grade 9 and Grade 10.’”
While she was in jail, Fiebelkorn said Emma had submitted an application to get into treatment when she was discharged, fearful of a relapse.
“I know she didn’t want to go like this. She’s writing me letters, she’s been phoning me three times a day, she did every single thing she could possibly do, and she was so scared when she left,” Fiebelkorn said through tears. “She was so scared. She didn’t want to go back to that.”
Gwen Wain, program co-ordinator of SAFExst, said the people the group works with fully understand the risks involved in drug use — perhaps more so than anyone else.
“They know every time that they use that they could die. I think a lot of misinformation is that there is choice involved there, like we have a continuum of choice, and these aren’t people who have any choice,” Wain said.
By the end, Emma went from about 90 lbs to a healthy weight, but waiting lists to get into treatment, Wain said, is three to six months, and supports in the meantime are often too little, too late.
“So we did what we could to keep her busy,” Fiebelkorn said.
Emma didn’t make it to treatment.
Making it to treatment wouldn’t be such a struggle for people like Emma if people better understood the issues at the heart of addictions, according to Wain.
“I don’t see the community support. Without community support, there isn’t going to be political will,” Wain said. “Even knowing that we can save people, and we need more more mental health supports, and we need more treatment centres — we know what saves people. We know we can do better; it’s about having the support to do that.”
And if the comments online are any indication, Wain said there’s little evidence to show the support that is needed from the community to drive significant political change to provide people like Emma with the supports she needed to make it to treatment.
“We read those comments after every news article, we read them on Facebook groups, and I really want to believe that people just don’t know any better, that people aren’t really like that, that people don’t understand that when they’re saying that it’s OK that our clients are dying, or that they deserve to die, that they just don’t understand,” Wain said.
“They don’t understand that we don’t have a single client that hasn’t been sexually assaulted. … We don’t have any clients that don’t have untreated trauma, that don’t have abuse or neglect in their history.”
Among the comments, Wain said references to “junkies” and “scum” have a dehumanizing effect on the people most in need of sympathy.
“They come into our lives, and they bring us so much joy and so much laughter, and they’re incredible people who deserve unconditional love, just like we do,” said support worker Alyssa Brewer. “They’re always offering us the few clothes they have, the purse that they love. They want us to have these things.”
It’s not just the front lines workers who see the comments — Wain said they hear from family of people who have died of drug overdoses about the comments.
“Lots of these clients come from healthy, loving, wonderful families, and their families read these comments, too, and they hear these things in the community, and it is heartbreaking, and it is really unnecessarily cruel,” Wain said.
“Imagine having a child who’s sick, who’s that sick and can’t get appropriate treatment or supports to not be sick, and to see them struggling, and then to see them really dehumanized and vilified by their communities.”