From Down Under to the Downtown Eastside: An Aussie’s experience at OPS and the community of care saving lives

(Photo credit: Trey Helten)

Being an Australian in Vancouver, I’m used to confusing people a bit. Sometimes folks can’t tell if I’m a Pom or a Kiwi. Sometimes my coffee order leaves baristas with furrowed brows. And once I made the mistake of using the slang phrase, “that’s fair dinkum” (meaning “that’s the truth”) in conversation with a Canadian friend, who insisted that Australian must be its own language.

But in the Canadian drug policy world, one observation of mine leads to more confusion than any quirks of pronunciation. When I say, “Australia is way behind Canada on harm reduction” people’s jaws hit the floor. A common response is: “but you folks have had safe injection sites since the 1990s!” They’re half right.

Australia currently has two supervised injection centres. One is run by the Uniting Church in Sydney and another is a government-run facility in my home city of Melbourne, which opened in 2018. So right off the bat, we’re lagging behind just on numbers: the city of Vancouver has more harm reduction facilities on one block than Australia has on a whole continent. But there’s more we could copy from Canada than numbers.

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I’ve been interning at the Canadian Drug Policy Coalition (CDPC) since January and after getting here I took the opportunity to volunteer once a week at the Overdose Prevention Society (OPS), which operates a low-barrier overdose prevention site. I wanted to help a life-saving organization and understand a perspective on drug policy outside the confines of academia. I received a rapid reminder of how important overdose prevention sites are: on my first shift, there were three overdoses in three hours. Thanks to the intervention of staff, volunteers and paramedics, all three individuals survived—three lives saved. This work happens everyday, and the number of deaths prevented is much larger.

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But there’s something else to OPS that sets it apart from the safe injection sites back home. OPS is a peer-led program; the staff and supervisors live in the Downtown Eastside and many of them have been or currently are people who consume substances or have experience with homelessness. Paying community members to work at the site gives them a “safe hustle” (a chance to make legal money) while also offering an empathetic ear to participants, rather than having privileged people talking down to them. As an outsider looking in, it’s so inspiring to see the respect that the supervisors and staff engender in participants.

(Photo credit: Rafal Gerszak, The Globe and Mail | Trey Helten, Manager of the Overdose Prevention Society)

You get a tangible sense of community by just looking around the space and observing the casual interactions between people. The notice board next to the sign-in desk is covered with artwork and poems made by community members. There are couches, which some people sleep on, and a big table in “the chill,” a space where people can hang out while they wait for a booth or just to chat with others. Even people’s handles (aliases that they use to sign in) are creative, personalized expressions—a mix of innuendo, puns or significant words or phrases from their lives. All of this combines to give a sense that this space belongs to the participants.

Being a volunteer at OPS has been a highlight of my time in Vancouver. It’s a really positive environment, which might sound odd since my first shift involved intervening in three overdoses, but I truly mean it. The staff are genuinely kind and warm, and it’s always great when I get the chance to chat to a participant as they sign in. Aside from getting to meet some inspiring people, OPS gives me a lot of hope, just as it does the countless community members who use its life-saving services. Working in drug policy, it is easy to become pessimistic when governments, police and uninformed people put hurdles in the path of progress. But OPS is a reminder that people are making a positive difference in the overdose crisis every day despite such obstacles.

(Photo credit: Rafal Gerszak, The Globe and Mail | Sarah Blyth, executive director at the Overdose Prevention Society)

This is what Australia is missing. Besides people being misinformed about safe injection sites, we lack a community-led approach to harm reduction. Australia should be focussing on creating spaces that aren’t just physically safe, but that also allow people to congregate, build community, and find hope. In short, Australia doesn’t just need more safe injection sites; it needs more spaces like OPS. And that’s fair dinkum.

Daniel Gates is a research intern with the Canadian Drug Policy Coalition studying a double degree of Law and International Relations at Monash University in Australia. The Overdose Prevention Society welcomes donations of clothing, blankets, and food. You can drop items off at 58 East Hastings Street, Vancouver between the hours of 8:00 a.m. – 9:00 p.m., 7 days a week. You can also donate to them online here.

About Daniel Gates

Daniel Gates was a Canadian Drug Policy Coalition research intern (February 2020) from Melbourne, Australia