The DTES Market case for an overdose prevention site
By Kiri Bird
On September 20th, I stopped by the DTES Market at 62 East Hastings. Sarah Blyth, the market Manager, had invited me to take a look at the overdose prevention tent they recently set up.
The Local Economic Development Lab partnered with the DTES Market in 2015/16, and we remain big supporters of the work they do to create economic opportunities at a grassroots level for very poor residents of the DTES, including many who are homeless. As incubators and social innovation labs struggle with often-conflicting values of innovation and inclusivity, the DTES Market is a guidepost that I refer to often.
It was about 4:00PM and the market was shutting down. As a team volunteers in safety vests worked to break down the site and to help vendors pack up and store their belongings, Sarah showed me recent upgrades. A trailer had been reorganized with deep shelves lining the walls to store immaculately organized plastic bins, each labelled and containing vendor’s items. The large tent had come down “It’s safer this way,” she said. There was a professional air to the work, deliberate, rhythmic, practiced.
If there’s one thing I’ve learned working in the Downtown Eastside it’s that economic development in such a complex community can’t possibly happen in a vacuum. Basic health services and housing are fundamental to any kind of labour force attachment. That’s why grassroots social enterprise and non-profit organizations – who aim to provide economic opportunities for individuals facing barriers to stability – constantly find themselves advocating for their workers’ housing, income assistance and now, running an overdose prevention site.
Sarah led me to a white tent tucked away at the back of the lot, near the gate, which was locked. As I peer into the back alley past the tent, I catch a glimpse of about nine people injecting drugs. Sarah explains, “This alley sees some of the most action in Vancouver. We’re on the street like nobody else is. That’s why we need to be able to respond quickly.” The peer worker who had been staffing the tent told me that he oversaw 25 people, and one person required Narcan that day.
As if on cue, a man runs up to the fence, banging and screaming “Narcan, Narcan, please!” Someone is overdosing in the alley a few meters away. The DTES Market staff spring into action, finding the keys to the back gate, grabbing a Narcan kit, and rushing into the alley to help. They got to him quickly, this individual would probably be ok.
Unfortunately, Janet, one of the DTES Market workers, was not so lucky when her son died at the age of 26 in early September. His death was a catalyst for the DTES Market to put up their own overdose prevention site. The staff feel that they can’t wait around for legal safe injection sites to open up. Not while people in their community are dying.
These days, their site sees more than 100 visitors per day. The Market is crowdfunding for the overdose prevention tent and are about two thirds of the way towards reaching their goal. You can make a donation here: https://www.gofundme.com/wesavelives and learn more about how to help.
Standing with Sarah and a few peer workers after things calmed down, they remarked that the following day was cheque day, which means there would be more money and more drugs on the street than any other day of the month. Without hesitation, a peer worker offered to work until late the following day.
The level of commitment I consistently see from the DTES Market workers and leadership is deeply moving.
Running an overdose prevention site isn’t the core mission of the DTES Market. They exist to create a safe and legal spaces for vending. But economic development in the Downtown Eastside can’t be disentangled from barriers to stability that residents face, and organizations like the DTES Market are compelled to advocate for the labour force – the people – in their community. This is such tough work, and I’m so grateful that we have organizations like the DTES Market playing a key role in our social fabric.