Penticton has its first public overdose prevention site and it’s mobile.
The mobile overdose prevention site, started by volunteers from the non-profit group Penticton Overdose Prevention Society, has been operating for over a week, providing a safe space for people to use opioids while being monitored in case of accidental overdose.
The site itself is an old wine-tour bus purchased with private donations by Desiree Franz, co-founder of Penticton Overdose Prevention Society. Franz hopes to fill the need for a public overdose prevention site in the community.
There are currently three private overdose prevention sites in Penticton, all at different social housing facilities. However, those locations are only open to residents of the housing facilities, meaning Penticton is without an overdose prevention site that is open to the public.
“There’s a large demographic of people who don’t have access to the overdose prevention sites we currently have in Penticton… in a city where there’s a lot of people who use substances, only a small portion have access to those facilities,” Franz said.
Franz has previously spoken about the need for a public overdose prevention site in Penticton, citing the city’s high number of overdose calls to paramedics and overdose deaths.
The idea behind overdose prevention (or supervised injection) sites is simple: provide people with a safe space and clean supplies to use opioids and monitor them on-site with the opioid reversing drug naloxone on-hand in case of an overdose.
Vancouver’s Insite became the first legal supervised injection site in North America over 10 years ago.
Penticton is on track to record the city’s most overdose deaths in a single year in 2021. According to the B.C. Coroners Service, 10 people have died of overdoses in Penticton so far in 2021. The most people to have died in a single year previously was 17.
Paramedics also handle a disproportionately high number of overdose calls in Penticton. From Jan. 1 to May 19, 2021 there were 279 overdose calls in Penticton, or an average of two per day.
A recent overdose death in the community amplified the need for an overdose prevention site, Franz said. “If something like this existed prior to that, this person would probably still be alive,” she said.
Franz hopes the mobile site will help save lives as well as take some of the burden off local paramedics.
She plans to have the site open in two different locations, one on the south side of Penticton and one adjacent to downtown.
At first, Franz plans to have the site open for a few hours at both locations Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights when the highest number of overdoses are usually observed.
The bus is staffed with volunteers from the Penticton Overdose Prevention Society and all the funds have been raised through private donations. Currently the overdose prevention site is unsanctioned, but Franz hopes that changes in the future.
Franz said unsanctioned sites have popped up in other communities across B.C. and have sometimes resulted in fines for the operators.
However, she isn’t worried about potentially being hit with fines herself and says she is willing to work with the city, Interior Health and the RCMP to get approval.
“There are some risks involved for us and the people who come to use,” she said.
“I’m more concerned about people who need to access the bus to make sure there’s no police involvement and adverse affects for the people we’re serving.
“We have the data, we have the moral high ground on this so I think we’re in a pretty good position to argue its necessity.”