Report says Winnipeg mobile overdose prevention site ‘surpassing all expectations’

A mobile overdose prevention site in Winnipeg has seen tens of thousands of visits from people looking to access services or use drugs in a safe setting — more than double what was initially anticipated, says a review of the site’s first year in operation.

From October 2022 to October 2023, there were 26,154 visits to the site run by Sunshine House, a drop-in and resource centre, said the report released Thursday.

More than 7,000 of these visits were by individuals looking to consume drugs. There were 20 overdoses, four trips to hospital at the individual’s request and no deaths.

“(The mobile overdose prevention site) is successful and is surpassing all expectations,” said the review. “(The site) has had a positive impact on marginalized and vulnerable populations and has successfully reduced the harms associated with substance use.”

The site also distributed harm reduction supplies, including clean needles and pipes. Hundreds of tests were done on drugs using a machine that analyzes their chemical makeup.

Sunshine House hired a local consulting firm to prepare the report, which is based on data collected at the site, as well as interviews, focus groups and surveys. Researchers spoke with more than 600 people for the review.

The report said the success of the program goes beyond the numbers.

An overwhelming number of people interviewed spoke about the “profound” impact the site has had on vulnerable individuals, community organizations and Winnipeg’s core neighbourhood.

“Overall, (the site) has … demonstrated the need for this service through the sheer number of visits, relationships and bonds that have been made. This program has saved lives and changed lives, and continues to serve Winnipeg’s vulnerable populations with care and compassion,” the review said.

The site launched in October 2022 in response to the growing toxic drug crisis that has swept across Canada. The report said many provinces responded by providing supervised places for people to use drugs with sterile equipment and supplies in a monitored space, but Manitoba failed to step up.

Sunshine House received funding from the federal government to run the site.

The site operates out of a recreational vehicle that travels around Winnipeg’s core five days a week. It is overseen by a co-ordinator and run by staff and people Sunshine House call peers — those who have used drugs or currently use them.

“The peers successfully created a warm and welcoming environment, and shaped programs and services to the specific needs of users,” the report said.

Despite successes, the report said the site “is not a solution to the entirety of (the toxic drug) crisis.”

“One mobile overdose prevention site is nowhere near enough to meet the size and scale of the challenge,” it said.

In a study released this week, researchers from the University of Toronto found opioid-related deaths doubled in Canada between 2019 and the end of 2021, with the Prairie provinces experiencing a dramatic jump.

Manitoba saw the sharpest rise in opioid-related overdose deaths for those aged 30 to 39, reaching 500 deaths per million population — more than five times the 89 deaths per million population recorded at the beginning of the study period.

The overdose site report said more needs to be done address the “gaping chasm” of services offered by the health-care and public health systems in Manitoba, including access to housing and mental health and addiction supports.

It also advocated for the creation of several supervised consumption sites in Winnipeg.

Manitoba’s NDP government has committed to help fund a safe consumption site in the city. Premier Wab Kinew said last month, when the provincial budget was released, that such a site is expected to open next year.

Some people interviewed for the report said there is a need for a permanent site that has longer hours of operation and counselling services.

Story by Brittany Hobson

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