Safe injection is just a Band-Aid


Fall is setting in all around us following a spectacular summer in most of B.C. For many readers, the kids are back at school and we are back at work, hopefully after a good vacation. That’s what life is supposed to be like.

But for too many it’s not. This summer, tourism industry representatives pleaded for someone to do something about aggressive panhandlers and beggars. And all summer the federal government struggled over what to do with Vancouver’s supervised injection site. In the end, the federal health minister caved in to a powerful and diverse lobby effort to keep the site open. He didn’t give in entirely; he allowed for it to stay open until December 2007, which probably means until after another federal election.

For the users of the site, and for the people we see huddled in doorways and sleeping on sidewalks and in parks, there was no summer vacation, no return to work or school. For those people, life seems mind-numbingly the same, except that it starts to get colder. While we turn up the heat in our homes or resort to seat warmers in our cars, they look for more newspaper to stuff in their shoes.

In late August the federal and provincial governments found ways to contribute a total of $110 million more to help fund the Olympic Games in 2010. I’m a supporter of the Games. I want them to be a great success, but I’m troubled by the notion that we can find the money for that project and we can’t seem to find money to provide shelter for people who are so in need.

There’s no one solution, no easy fix for the homeless and helplessly addicted, many of whom are mentally ill. But surely with the wealth and resources in this province we can provide something more than what we are currently giving. The support for the supervised injection site defied logic. You had Premier Campbell and former premier Mike Harcourt speaking in favour of the site. You had Senator Larry Campbell, a former cop and coroner, also in favour. The former mayor Philip Owen and present mayor Sam Sullivan were on the same page. (For years Philip Owen had been a champion of the site.) Such wide-ranging support had to influence the prime minister and federal health minister, especially when prominent medical people supported it. But how many of those people think the safe-injection site alone is enough?

To me, it’s never made any sense to simply allow people to inject a harmful and illegal drug more safely! We have to go further. The only argument that makes sense to me for allowing addicts to inject more safely is that it could spare them the additional hell of HIV/AIDS and possibly bridge them into treatment. To do that we have to provide them with more than a pat on hte back and a return to the mean streets of the Downtown Eastside – we have to provide them with further support. That means shelter, a safe place to go home to.

It must also mean more detox facilities, and this treatment has to be immediately available. Anyone who’s quit smoking tknows something about addiction. It’s hard, and it takes time to beat an addiction. Barely anyone quits smoking the first time they try, and people who’ve made bad choices around drugs aren’t simply going to quit right out of the gate, either. They need help and they may need it for a long time.

The supervised-injection site can be a Band-Aid or it can be a vital first step. Supporters have been given a lifeline until December 2007. I think it is past time for the city, the province and the federal government to use that time to come up with a strategy to make meaningful money available ot provide shelter and support for the people we all want off the street. This would relieve emergency wards, ambulance services and police, and it would show those people for the first time in a long time that someone cares about them. It would make their lives a whole lot better and it would make this a much more attractive place to live for all of us. We need to invest in more than the infrastructure for the Olympic Games; we need to invest in our entire community. A supervised injection site has brought together a very diverse group of people. I only hope that they continue to push us all to take hte critical next steps.

There’s no excuse for having homeless people in this country.