Discarded needles are just the tip of a much deeper crisis

There are no easy solutions to homelessness and drug use in the Cowichan Valley

Residents of the Cowichan Valley are, right now, confronting some very tough social issues. Homeless people are camping in green spaces close to the city centre, including along the Cowichan River and in the protected wetlands of Somenos Marsh. These camps are often messy, and used hypodermic needles from intravenous drug use are a common sight. Some downtown business owners are getting used to an uneasy morning routine of arriving early to clear sleeping people from the stoop and the vicinity of trash and needles.

Problems of homelessness and drug addiction are not new to this community, but they have been made more visible by a housing crunch that has pushed more people onto the streets, combined with an influx of high-potency opioid drugs in the street market. Life-saving public health measures that provide clean needles to drug users have also brought new awareness to the presence of addiction in our community.

Cleaning up messes left by drug users is tough. Empowering drug users to take care of themselves is even tougher. But when I look at the Facebook comments on this article by the Cowichan Valley Citizen, which centres the experience of shop owner Will Arnold, I see a community ready to grapple in tough conversations with compassion and an open mind. That gives me hope.

Based on community interviews and a public vote I conducted last year, as well as ongoing feedback, my team at The Discourse and I have decided to spend the next couple of months digging into big questions of addictions and mental health in the Cowichan Valley. We’ll be going deeper than just the hot button issues of homeless camps and discarded needles. The vast majority of illicit drug users, after all, are not homeless.

Do you have a story about mental health and addictions that needs telling? I’m looking for personal stories that open a window to the complexity of these issues. I want to hear from people who are working on solutions in their own community. Got a tip? Send me an email to share your thoughts.

Community spotlight

The exhibit Stigmatized exposed the harsh realities of life on the streets in the Cowichan Valley.

Stacy Middlemiss wears a lot of hats. She’s a psychiatric nurse and a councillor with the City of Duncan. In her current day-job with the Canadian Mental Health Association, she leads a community action team working on a plan to deal with Cowichan’s opioid overdose crisis. She also leads peer support network for people who use drugs or formerly used drugs. Her Street School, as it’s called, has attracted more than 150 unique participants since it began in September.

It’s an opportunity for Stacy to share information about new services in town, like the winter women’s shelter that opened in December. It’s an opportunity for peers to network and share information about what supports they need to stay well.

Last month in the Island Savings Centre’s Arbutus Gallery, Stacy hosted an exhibit called Stigmatized about the lived experiences of drug users in the Cowichan Valley. The space was filled with Stacy’s own photographs and quotes from the people she works with. Many of them are haunting. “I smoked crack at age 16 and I got it from my mom,” one poster read, over an image of a face mostly shadowed by a hoodie.

Stacy wants people in the Cowichan Valley to know that homeless drug users are human beings just doing their best to deal with the very challenging existence of life on the street. “Some people are using drugs to stay awake at night, so they don’t get attacked, or their stuff doesn’t get stolen, or to keep warm. It’s just really a vicious cycle. They’re basically being re-traumatized every day, on top of the trauma that made them start using in the first place,” she says.

“Nobody is going to get clean, living on the streets,” Stacy says. “How are you going to stay well if you don’t have some stability?”

The stigma that our society attaches to drug use is an additional barrier to people getting help, she says. It’s a big part of the reason why most overdose deaths in British Columbia occur when people use drugs in private homes, alone.

Let’s gather

  • 👪 Feb. 7: Cowichan Valley MLA Sonia Furstenau will host a town hall meeting on the overrepresentation of Indigenous children in the child welfare system.
  • 🌱 Feb. 8: Work out your stress and frustration on an invasive Himalayan blackberry bush in Somenos Marsh. The Somenos Marsh Wildlife Society will provide the tools, coffee and cookies for this volunteer work party.

  • 💃🏽 Feb. 9: Visit the REDress Project art installation and vigil all day at Charles Hoey Park in memory of missing and murdered Indigenous women. There will be a community prayer circle at 9:30 a.m.

  • 👣 Feb. 9: The second annual Walk for Missing and Murdered Men, Women and Children begins from the Quw’utsun’ Cultural and Conference Centre at 11 a.m. All are welcome.

  • 🕺 Feb. 9: Do something nice for the kids: leave them home this Saturday and get your dance on. Proceeds from the 19+ dance at the Lake Cowichan 50+ Activity Centre will support the Cowichan Women Against Violence Society’s youth counselling programs and the Lake Cowichan Seniors Association.

News of the week

  • The Tremblay family in Crofton is overwhelmed by an outpouring of community support after a fire engulfed their home last week, the Chemainus Valley Courier reports.

  • The Municipality of North Cowichan plans to spend $27,000 this year to get more feedback from residents, the Cowichan Valley Citizen reports. The money will be spent on a citizen satisfaction survey and training for staff on improving public participation.

  • There’s no long-term solution for funding a team to clean up discarded needles in the Cowichan Valley, the Citizen reports. The Warmland Sharps Pick-Up Team ended its contract at the end of the January, and a temporary, part-time contract with the Nanaimo and Area Resource Services for Families runs only through the end of March.

  • Shelters in the Cowichan Valley are overflowing thanks to the run of cold weather, the Cowichan Valley Citizen reports. The new winter women’s shelter in North Cowichan, which opened in December, had to turn away five women on a particularly cold night in January.

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