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Overdose intervention project shows Vancouver needs more social housing: researcher

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Pilot project highlights need for increased social housing in Vancouver

Study looks at single room occupancy hotels and the link to overdoses in Vancouver

VANCOUVER (NEWS 1130) – A new study is shining a different light on single room occupancy hotels in Vancouver when it comes to overdoses.

Researchers say the city needs to invest in more SROs and other low-income housing options in order to ensure more people receive the overdose interventions they need.

As part of a six-month pilot project, several people living in 10 SRO hotels were brought in to take part in a peer-led intervention initiative.

“People who use drugs, supported by a nurse, were delivering Naloxone education and training and distribution in private single-room occupancy hotels in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside,” explains research scientist Ryan McNeil with the BC Centre on Substance Use. “These private SROs were chosen on the basis of being some of the highest overdose buildings in Vancouver.”

McNeil says these buildings tend to be quite isolated. It’s because of this he claims there are “very few interventions” in them. That’s why peer-led intervention was identified as something that could make a difference.

“Tenants who were already living in the buildings were involved in a response was deemed important and as having a high potential to reach folks because it would be able to leverage the networks of people living in the buildings to provide critical and lifesaving overdose-response education to other people in the buildings.”

These people — Tenant Overdose Response Organizers (TORO) — live in the building and are individuals who have “lived experiences” with drug or substance use who work with a Vancouver Coastal Health nurse.

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According to the BC Centre on Substance Use, 88 per cent of illicit drug overdose deaths in this province happened inside last year. More than half of them are said to have occurred in a private residence. Many of these deaths happened when the person was alone.

McNeil adds a sense of community plays a big role in SROs.

“One thing we know from our larger work on peer-based interventions is that they’re able to both foster a sense of community but capitalize on the fact that people are embedded, nested, within relationships across their communities,” he explains. “When it comes to TOROs in the individual buildings, they were able to leverage the fact that they’re there to work with people to support their educational needs in relation to overdose responses.

“But also because these interventions were bringing people together for group training, it was able to foster a community among people living in the buildings even when they may not have otherwise known one-another.”

He says this is critical when it comes to fostering a larger environment in which people are more able to respond to a drug overdose.

With 1,422 deaths, 2017 was the deadliest year for suspected overdose deaths in BC.

The BC Centre on Substance Use argues that there needs to be a greater investment to ensure people have basic provisions of housing.

“Delivered in a way that respects people’s tenancy rights and allows them to live in a safer environment,” McNeil says. “It’s not necessarily SROs, per se, there’s a greater need for housing for folks.”

When it comes to the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver specifically, McNeil points out that SRO hotels are one of the largest forms of housing stock available for low income people — many of whom are drug users.

“I think, certainly, this study points to the fact that those buildings that are privately owned can be challenging to intervene in, in part because while some folks operating these buildings were very receptive to the intervention and even took part in trainings, there were other settings where they were challenging to implement because building staff and managers and landlords were more reticent around actually providing housing to people who use.”

The pilot project was funded by the City of Vancouver. While the BC Centre on Substance Use was not directly involved in the training of the overdose response organizers, McNeil says the group responsible has been scaling up the intervention in high-risk environments.