Insite-full mess

I’m usually a pretty even-keeled guy. Few things really get me amped up, and working in the Downtown Eastside for the past few years, not much really surprises me anymore.

But I’ll admit I nearly lost my mind a few days ago when I saw this mess in front of Insite.

For those who don’t know, Insite is the government-funded injection facility in the heart of Hastings Street. Injection drug users are allowed to shoot whatever they want into their veins under a legal exemption from the government.

Millions of dollars have gone into funding the facility, and to launching legal challenges when the federal government threatened to shut it down.

The place is clean, staffed by a bunch of friendly and well-trained twenty- and thirty somethings, and it’s open until the wee hours of the morning. You can get needles, water, tourniquets and clean spoons to cook your drugs, and there’s a nurse there to give medical assistance should you overdose (after all, it’s legal to shoot up there, but the poison still has to be purchased from the bully-boys on the street corner — and who knows what they’re putting in that stuff).

You can probably understand our amazement when my partner Dan and I walked by in the middle of the afternoon and found a man sitting against the outside of the building with a loaded needle in hand and a rubber band tied around his arm. He was less than 20 feet from the front door of Insite, with six lanes of traffic buzzing by.

Dan and I put him in handcuffs and threatened to charge him for possession of a controlled substance. We normally don’t make it a priority to put addicts in jail for simple possession charges. The courts are backlogged as it is, and we both know that time-served won’t do much to cure the addict or deter the offending behaviour. Besides, Crown counsel isn’t likely to fight for a minor possession charge, especially one against an IV drug user on the Downtown Eastside, and I’m not about to invest hours of paperwork on a file that’s going to get no-charged in the morning.

So with our sober second thought we opted to take a different tact. Dan marched him to the front door of Insite for a lecture, while I squeezed out the contents of the needle and used my boot to sweep the debris into a tidy pile.

We gave him the usual spiel about how irresponsible it was to shoot up on a busy sidewalk in broad daylight. We demanded to know why he would choose to shoot up in front of the cops, in the middle of the day, when he was so close to a facility that governments and community agencies have spent millions of dollars and 10 years fighting to keep open.

He ran the gauntlet of excuses. He claimed there was a line-up at Insite (there wasn’t), then suggested staff there steal his belongings (they don’t). At the end of the conversation he admitted that he just needed his fix and he didn’t care where he was when he got it. He was unapologetic.

Such is the overwhelming pull of addiction, I guess.

I thought we had an ally when a staff member from Insite joined us out on the sidewalk. I hoped he had come to lend us support in telling the man how inappropriate his actions were. I figured he’d quote a few figures about how Insite saves lives, and maybe even invite him inside and offer to steer him towards some addictions counselling. I was disappointed when the only thing the staffer did was tell us that we were the ones who were out of line.

He demanded our badge numbers, wrote them down on a piece of paper, then disappeared back into the building to record the incident in the logbook. Sadly, not a word was uttered to the man who had just been busted for shooting up on the sidewalk outside.

In the end, we were left with little option but to remove the handcuffs, wag our fingers a little more and stand by as he cleaned up his mess. We watched as he walked away grumbling under his breath, then we walked the other way doing the same.

And the beat went on.

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32 Responses to Insite-full mess

  1. sue says:

    This left me very frustrated. Perhaps I just caught your emotion as it leapt off the monitor. I don’t understand why the guy couldn’t step a few feet further to the building. But then, my addictions, we all have them one way or the other, aren’t as severe as his are, I guess.
    I certainly don’t understand staff’s reaction unless it’s a matter of the client is always right. I’ve seen that before through my volunteer travels.

    By the way, why did you remove the two vids?

  2. H says:

    This post has also left me very frustrated. I have supported the idea of Insite from the beginning but this man’s actions, and the actions of the staff member have me second guessing myself. If one addict doesn’t care that it’s there and just wants his fix however and wherever he can get it, despite a safer option being just feet away, then how many others feel the same? My guess is quite a few. And if one staffer isn’t willing to work with the police and offer help to the addict, then how many others will follow suit or already there. I get the idea of Insite and I know I shouldn’t let one story change my attitude toward it’s purpose, but it’s certainly something that will likely enter my conversations on this topic in the future.

    Thanks for sharing.

  3. 9-1-1 Operator says:

    I can feel your frustration. Not having any illegal addictions I can’t understand the intense need to shoot up.

    I hope your reference to the amount of work the police do to write up CC reports makes people realize that its not an easy/quick task to charge every single drug user. Even after writing up EXTENSIVE CC reports, and spending hours and hours in court, I’ve seen officers come back in to the radio room and just shake their heads because the case has either been delayed or thrown out. Of course, all that time means that officer is off the road.

    It seems never ending sometimes…frustrating beyond belief…but continue on we must! Keep up the good work!!!

  4. Paramed student says:

    Step one: Find a brick wall.
    Step two: Bash head against it until frustration reduces to manageable levels or a state of unconsciousness is reached.
    Step three: Repeat as necessary.

    Good luck!

  5. JustSayin says:

    I do NOT support places like Insite. The objects in your photo are not foreign to me – I used to see stuff like that on a daily basis. As I’ve said in a previous post, there used to be a needle exchange near my office – and the entire neighbourhood was one big frightening bio-hazard area. My eyes never left the ground when I walked outside for fear of stepping on a needle. I NEVER walked in what little grass there is – and on more than one occasion I found needles stuck in trees 🙁 The needle exchange moved – and within a month the addicts found someplace else to hang out – and our neighbourhood became a different place – safer and more enjoyable. If I ever found out that a needle exchange was planned for a neighbourhood in which I live or work – I would fight it like a caged animal because I’ve seen what they do to a neighbourhood.

    • Mark says:

      So the problem just moved to another neighborhood & for you it was problem solved, right? Rather than move the problem along, maybe we should look at a way of controlling or even fixing it.

      There is an advantage to having a central area for addicts. It’s easier to supply then with medical help, food, shelter & assistance. If you look east to Calgary, they closed down a well known homeless bar and hang out a few years ago. The reasoning was that the police visited this hang out 1700 times a year. After the hang out was shut, the homeless spread out across downtown & moved into other neighborhoods. There was a rise in certain types of crime across most of the urban area in downtown known as the Beltline.

      Insite isn’t a solution. It’s a band aid. It’s not going to fix the problem of addiction. It’s going to (hopefully) slow down the spread of disease and that will, in the long run, lower the cost of health care, etc to those who are on the street & addicts. Be glad it’s in the DTES versus Yaletown or The West End.

      • JustSayin says:

        Mark – I completely understand that the problem was not solved and that it only moved somewhere else. But yes – I am relieved that the drug-related dangers in my work neighbourhood all but disappeared with the needle exchange. I make no apologies for that.

        Personally – I support mandatory long term (years) treatment for drug addiction. It’s a life-threatening disease with significant societal consequences, and should be treated accordingly. Instead of throwing money at needle exchanges, hostels, emergency medical treatment, policing, etc. – let’s invest those funds in treatment centres that will re-establish physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual wellbeing – and give these folks another opportunity at life.

      • Jane says:

        See I have seen the opisite happen. When I First started working in the DTES there were needles every where and people injecting in every corner. Now the streets and Alleys are much better I barley see needles. There is still the odd person injecting in an alley, but most times it is because InSite is full and they can’t wait.

  6. Jane says:

    To Steve,
    I would like to apologize to you and Dan for the response you received form the staff member. He was not very cool!
    As a former staff I can assure you he is the exception…not the rule.

    In the past I used to have many VPD pc’s bring people to the door for the same reason, or to sleep it off, or to get out of the extreme weather. I would of been grateful that you brought them to us rather than send them to jail. I have to admit I am a little embarrassed right now of the treatment all three of you received.

    This is no attitude to take to be part of the community and to continue to have support from the VPD. I would also like to thank you for other post where you are supportive of InSite and other programs ran by the same non-profit.

    Be safe!

  7. NZ Cop says:

    I recently visited your city and loved it. It was so foreign yet somewhat reminded me of home which led me to your blog.

    Individuals and judicial process can at times be frustrating in our job of enforcing the law and keeping others safe, add the idealism of ‘harm reduction’ and anti-professional aid workers can make you think why bother. Be safe in the knowledge you make a difference, I enjoyed my holiday to Canada and to the city of Vancouver YOU made it safe for me and I thank you for that.

    Safer communities together!

  8. Ricardo says:

    Sounds like DTES beat cops and InSite staff have some animosity – you guys should should grab some beers and clear the air. After all, in the end you’re on the same team.

    • Jane says:

      Like I said above this is not the norm for the staff.
      Don’t understand why they acted that way. When I was there we
      had a great relationship with the VPD.

  9. AndyZ. says:

    Constable Addison, thanks for the great post like always! Great insight into the DTES situation. I feel that Insite should be closed…not to be too philosophical, but its really a distraction to our good value system and the formation of a good/effective society. And if we don’t crack down on addicts, what are we saying as a society? Is being an addict tolerated and acceptable, – and can the rules can be bent. — if this is true, there is a likely chance that we all will be seeing this story play out again in the near future

    • sue says:

      Ignoring a problem does not eliminate the problem, not to be too philosophical about it…. (deliberately not saying more or I will go into a huge rant)

    • Jane says:

      People don’t choose to be addicts…this is a health care issue.
      Also you should know that not all addicts live in the DTES.
      There are plenty of professionals, house wives, professional athletes and
      the list goes on and on.
      And yes I too will go into a rant if I don’t stop here.

      • JustSayin says:

        People may not choose to be addicts – but they do make choices that take them to that state. And it’s an over-simplification to refer to this as a health care issue.

        And actually – the answer to AndyZ question is: Yes. Addiction is tolerable and acceptable in our culture – and the rules can be bent for them.

        There’s an entire culture surrounding addiction – complete with infrastructure, careers, volunteer activities, crime, mental and physical health issues, cultural values, religion, politics, media, and various streams of government and private funding.

        I believe that people who work in this culture are very compassionate, caring, and well intended, however, here’s a head scratcher: Support services (e.g. Insite) have become part of the addiction culture. Doesn’t it seem reasonable that the volunteers/staff/board members would have an investment in preserving the culture they support? What motivation do we have to make things better if we believe that what we are doing is the ‘best’?

        • Jane says:

          Just sayin’
          You make very good points here.
          Just an fyi for you though.
          The staff, directors, peers, councilor and rn’s that work in places like InSite do not feel, for the most part, that it is the best solution. It is one solution that works for some people.
          I believe that everyone is different, so that means they respond to different forms of help. This is just one of the stepping stones and is there to be a first point of contact for those that do not seek out help. Keeps people safe till they are ready to seek help, because as you know people have to be ready to be clean to get clean.

          InSite is really meant to ultimately get people who want to change their lives to do so. They may not push people there, but when they say they are ready staff will bend over backwards to make it happen. The difficulty is the lack of detox beds and treatment centers….and then it comes back to housing.

          • Jane says:

            Just Sayin’

            I continually here this comment about people working in the DTES or any other community want to keep people sick.
            First off I am completely offended by this and think it is the most ludicrous thing I have ever hear.
            Why would we want to do that?
            Do you honestly think people set out thinking…”well if I can keep this person sick for this many months then I am garunteed a job”?
            Honestly it is just crazy.
            And why is this work field targeted like that…just because some of us believe in harm reduction instead of abstinence or 12 step or that god is going to save them?

            Some people living with addiction also have extreme mental health, physical health or abuse issues and they just choose not to seek out treatment. Some don’t want to get clean because they lives have been so terrible that they just don’t want to remember, or their physical illness has gone past any chance of recovery.

            Harm reduction is not about keeping people using so I have a job. It is about keeping them safe and clean until they decide they are ready to get help or giving someone a little self respect and dignity in their last few weeks.

            I have been in this line of work for over 14 yrs now and not once did I ever think that I could not send someone to detox because then someone else may want to go and then I will be out of a job.

            I can’t believe people would even think that way.
            And yes I am ranting, because this absolutely infuriates me.

        • Russ says:

          That is a ridiculous, simpleton, comment JustSayin: by your logic hospitals have an ‘interest’, as do doctors and nurses, in keeping people sick…

          • JustSayin says:

            I can understand how you would come to that conclusion Russ – especially using the hospital analogy. Unfortunately – our medical system is seriously broken as well, but I don’t for one moment think that any of the folks working in either of those two systems are invested in keeping people sick.

            My point is that if we want to fix either the addiction crisis (or the medical system for that matter) – we need to do something SERIOUSLY different than we are doing now. We need a significant paradigm shift and associated cultural shift, and that will never happen without significant resistance to individual and collective impacts. That’s human nature.

            A small example would be – if Insite closed, the staff would lose their jobs and a landlord would lose a long term tenant. If I fell into either one of those categories (staff or landlord), I would fight to keep Insite alive – not necessarily to save addicts, but to ensure my own personal circumstances would not change.

            And this example is not intended to point a finger at Insite – they are just an easy example because that’s what Steve’s blog was about. My thought process was related to the bigger culture that has evolved to support addicts in the DTES.

      • janie says:

        You are absolutely right…one difference, why is it that professionals, housewives etc have to pay for their own way out of an addiction if they choose to and yet the ones that cost the tax payers the most for their habit can’t see that it is running our health care system into the ground!!! We are lucky enough to have the health care that we have why are we allowing people who don’t want to contribute to it fairly abusing it?.

  10. jmv says:

    ps: Have you seen Larry Kent’s 1962 film Hastings Street? I just realized it’s been on Vimeo since last year. It’s a work of film fiction, but filled with lots of great DTES lore. Highly recommended. vimeo dot com/19191802

  11. janice says:

    First of all I would like to say that Insite needs clean up their act and make sure garbage is not just dumped out front, they ar paid to do a job and part of that job is to keep the place clean. It is disgusting to see the garbage thrown around a place that is not so popular with the general public. Doesn’t help Insite a bit when people see this crap all over the place.
    I feel your frustrations as well Steve. I worked with alcohol and drugs addicts for many years and they just have their own agenda.You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make him drink. The help is there, some choose to not take it. This man you speak of must have had his own thoughts about walking a few steps into a safer, cleaner environment. Probably something you and I and others will never be able to figure out. In any event I hope Insite starts to clean up around their business, the drug addicts won’t.

    • Jane says:

      InSite is swept every hour, unless very busy or a medical emergency is happening and in warmer weather it is hosed as well.
      Well at least it was when I worked there. Staff also go out on a regular basis and make sure that there is no one injecting on the street, but I am sure you can understand that they cannot have a guard posted there at all times and sometimes some one will be injecting or dropping garbage.
      At one time it was the cleanest patch of pavement on the block.

      • janice says:

        Looks to me like Insite is slipping. If they don’t keep the place clean, the addicts sure won’t.Maybe they need to put a garbage recepticle there in a permanent place. When people see this they are going to be voicing their opinions loudly as to how this place shouldn’t be there. Insite has a job to do and that also means keeping there place of business clean. Time to stop making excuses. Period!!!

  12. Mark says:

    Thought I would pass on this song I heard on Vancouver’s Peak FM the other day. The video and song examine the despair felt by an addict/prostitute who finally escapes. The song and video are incredibly powerful: Ed Sheeran – The A Team

  13. janie says:

    I am a police dispatcher and every day I see people who abuse the system, the same addresses we attend and the people we add to files on a regular basis. Truthfully I have given up caring anymore about what happens to these people. How many “free” services can you offer an addict before it is obvious they are not willing to change anymore. What makes me the most angry is that if I suddenly decided to start smoking crack tomorrow it would be my responsibility to pay for all my drug paraphernalia and if I get hooked I got to pay for my rehab and if I get busted I have to pay for my own lawyer to get me out of jail. When someone can tell me I have no reason to be angry about this and that it makes complete sense then maybe I will start caring. We should all care about persons less fortunate than ourselves and but when does it become a choice to pay for it or a given?

    • Russ says:

      Where to begin with Janie…
      The system, the same one that promotes alcohol in glossy magazines and commercials that are in every corner of our daily lives. Why don’t you tell us how many calls come in to police related to alcohol abuse, domestic violence, public disorder, and on…

      Then tell us, after you decide to turn off the tv and do a little homework, the rates in Canada, of alcoholism and it’s toll on families. The fact that our home, BC, our communities, traditionally has among the highest rates of childhood poverty in Canada. How we know that the outcomes of some of the above is chaotic, often violent and abusive, childhoods for thousands that had no ‘choice in where or to whom they were born. Now we are scratching the surface.

      Even if you went off the rails now, as in your example, you would still have much more going for you than many of the folks that make up the population you deride. You’d have your work experience, possibly a functional family, maybe an education (maybe not), but at least a period of life that was stable. I’m not an apologist but a realist. There are reams of research locally, in cities across North America and Europe. If we seriously wanted to tackle addiction then we’d be pouring research dollars into it as we do cancer and HIV. People talk about money being wasted in the DTES as we ignore childhood poverty in our midst only to spend 3/4s of a billion dollars to put a roof on a sports arena in the same neighbourhood…

      We can do so much better; but our culture, our politics, is one of mediocrity. Your comment is one tiny shred of evidence available to make my point.

      The last residential school in Canada closed in 1996! 1996! That is very recent. The UN has labeled that Canadian effort as a type of ‘genocide’: the systematic, conscious effort to remove a culture. We are only now looking seriously at the complete failure of the VPD/RCMP around the Picton case. A failure that was the result of a culture of not giving a damn about a certain population. The vast majority of whom were women with long histories of sexual abuse and abuse of every kind. That grew up in our country but were left to fight for their lives on their own. If we cared the BC government, and the voters who elect them, would start to do something to reverse the trend of poverty. But not enough people care, so we start another year where BC will knowingly budget for a national high of children in poverty – and the issues of the DTES will grow not recede.

      • JustSayin says:

        Russ – You write with passion and intelligence. I would be interested in your thoughts: If I could give you $20M with a two year timeline, and you could make up all the rules, what would you do to address the addiction issues that plague the DTES (goals and actions)? I realize this is a much bigger issue and I’m sure you could identify all the things you could NOT do (too little money, too little time) – but I’m just putting this out there to stimulate discussion about what could be done with that much time, authority, and money.

        • Mark says:

          Great points Russ, especially regarding the residential schools. At times Canadians are rather smug quietly convincing ourselves that the decay we see in the US, etc doesn’t happen here. Is the residential school fiasco any less abominable than the treatment of blacks in the USA? Nope.


          Not so long ago, I had the pleasure of talking to a woman whose sister was butchered by Picton. She was native & had survived a residential school and was a true survivor. Talking to her I could hear the anguish in her voice. It was a reminder of the strength of these people that are true survivors. But, I realize, no matter how harsh life is, I could never come close to understanding her world.

          The gritty reality is that sometimes there are no good answers when it comes to insite, free drugs, etc. There is only “coping”. Sometimes it’s the best we can do.

    • janice says:

      Obviously you know little about how drug addicts think, if at all. They are not thinking about how to get better they are thinking how to survive without dying. Only a few can be saved and most are too far gone, that doesn’t mean to give up on them. I have seen heroin addicts that have used for 25 years all of a sudden decide they have had enough.They get clean, straight and live a fairly “normal” life. The one time you give up on someone may be the time that they needed your support. Whast about the people on socail assistance that are able to work and they don’t they sit home watching tv, smoking and drinking or drugging?? The ones who are able to work, need to be working. Think about it. Single mothers fathers who have children in school full time need to be working as well, lots are not. Think about it.