Business owners in Port Alberni last week voiced their concerns related to the city’s opioid crisis.
A week after the province of British Columbia marked six years of an overdose crisis, the Alberni Valley Chamber of Commerce hosted an “opioid dialogue” with representatives from the Port Alberni Shelter Society on Thursday, April 21. The purpose of the event was to engage with the community about the crisis and the shelter society’s response to it.
Bill Collette, the Chamber’s CEO, said the idea for a dialogue event came about after he was asked to write a letter in support of 24/7 public washrooms in Port Alberni.
“Before I crafted a letter, I had to do some investigation,” said Collette.
Collette spoke to 12 businesses in the area around the city’s overdose prevention site (OPS) on lower Third Avenue and said he received a “myriad” of responses—some in favour of public washrooms, some against and some who needed a little more information.
“It really educated me to the complexity of the problem,” he said.
Collette decided to host an event with the Port Alberni Shelter Society (PASS), which operates the OPS, a nearby sobering centre and low-barrier housing complex, and give surrounding businesses an opportunity to ask questions and provide feedback.
Thursday’s event saw a number of business owners and employees attend, along with politicians and concerned residents. Collette said he was a “little disappointed” with the small number of businesses that attended the event, but said that the businesses that did attend had a big impact. Approximately 60 people registered for the forum.
He added that the main concern he heard was about how the safety of the public will be managed with public washrooms.
Mayor Sharie Minions spoke on Thursday and said that although the city does want to see a 24/7 public washroom, there are no formal plans at this time to have one installed in the Lower Third Avenue area. Before this happens, she added, nearby businesses will be consulted and a partnership will be formed so that the washroom can be monitored.
“We are not going to put in a washroom and just allow it to be an unmonitored site,” she said. “We will not put in a washroom until we have a partnership with service providers who can manage the washroom.”
Michael Cole, representing Bute Street Veterinary Clinic, said that since the OPS has opened, he has seen an increase in the amount of drug paraphernalia and vandalism in the area, as well as an increase in the unsafe use of drugs around his business.
“I understand the need for it, but it seems to be concentrating very much on one area in this community,” he said. “The businesses in this area are suffering.”
The issue, he said, is affecting not only business owners but also their customers.
Wes Hewitt, PASS executive director, said that the location of the OPS was selected based on the area in Port Alberni with the highest number of overdose incidents.
“It’s tough to tie the increase in the area directly to the site, because the increase in the overdose crisis across the province over the past five years has been steadily increasing,” he said. “There’s no easy fix to it.”
He added that the OPS collects one-and-a-half times the number of needles that they give out at the site. The shelter society also has a contractual agreement with Island Health to pick up garbage around the area.
Another business representative in the area, who did not wish to provide her name, said that despite the presence of the OPS, business owners in the area are usually the ones who end up taking care of most of the garbage and messes left behind.
“Nobody hears our side of the story,” she said.
Minions said on Thursday that she sees an opportunity for a “community liaison” role, which will give business owners one point of contact to call for issues related to drug use and mental health crises.
“I’m going to take that back to the city because I think that’s something we could all collaborate on,” she said.
Courtenay-Alberni MP Gord Johns said business owners are unfortunately “on the doorstep” of a social system collapse, driven by a mental health crisis, a toxic drug supply and “chronic” underfunding for housing. He spoke to the need for zero-barrier housing in Port Alberni, as well as the need for more hours at the OPS.
“Nobody’s died at the overdose prevention site,” he said. “But [the site] closes. People don’t use drugs by a clock. Business owners shouldn’t be dealing with this.”
Kristine Douthwright, deputy director for PASS, read a letter from a former shelter society client and said that people often forget about the human behind the crisis.
The OPS is not just about saving lives, said Hewitt. The shelter society records the number of people who use at the OPS, and keeps records of their outreach and referrals.
“It’s a connection,” he said.
People don’t wake up one day and decide they want to struggle with addiction, he added.
“They wake up and come down to the site and say I want to quit. If we’re there at that moment and we’ve got that connection, we can start them down that road.”