The bright blue walls, well-loved comfy couches, plants, large TV, with an I am Legend DVD waiting to be played, laundry area, and kitchen give Squamish's new Overdose Prevention Site the feel of a rumpus room in a family home.
And that is the idea.
It is a place where people can come, feel welcome, safely use substances at the two stations, consisting of chairs, metal counters, and mirrors — or around back at a smoking station — and then hang out for a bit: have a coffee, some juice or a bag lunch.
There are harm reduction supplies and experienced folks on hand, ensuring no one dies due to the current toxic drug supply.
(If people want to just come for supplies, that is OK too.)
While only open a week when The Chief took a tour, locals have already been using it.
"People are using the space, which is great," said Jenna Becker, project co-ordinator with Sea to Sky Community Action Team (CAT).
"I am just so excited there is another service that is going to help people. It is just about trying to keep people alive."
So far, oxygen has been administered to a client, but no one has needed life-saving intervention yet.
The OPS, which officially opened at 37930 Third Ave. on Feb. 22, is an emergency initiative to stem the tide of people dying from toxic drug poisoning.
Helping Hands' outreach team staffs the site alongside peers who have lived substance use experience.
Thus, there are two people on at all times who have advanced overdose prevention training.
Drug checking — for fentanyl or benzodiazepines — is also available.
"You can come in, and the staff can check it — they have drug checking strips — or you can come in, and they can tell you how to use them, and you can check it yourself," Becker said.
On March 2, the BC Coroners Service reported there were 165 suspected illicit drug toxicity deaths in January in B.C. That is the largest number of lives lost due to illicit drugs in the first month of a calendar year ever recorded, according to the coroner.
"These figures are heartbreaking, both in scale and for the number of families who are grieving the loss of a loved one," said Lisa Lapointe, chief coroner, BC Coroners Service in a news release.
"In the fifth year of this public health emergency, there is virtually no community in the province that hasn't been touched by this devastating loss of life."
The report also notes that extreme fentanyl concentrations have been showing up in deaths more often.
From April 2020 to January 2021, approximately 13% of cases had extreme fentanyl concentrations, compared to 8% from January 2019 to March 2020, the report states.
Carfentanil — one of the most potent opioids — was detected in 14 suspected illicit drug toxicity deaths in January 2021 and 64 deaths in 2020.
The coroner is also seeing more benzodiazepines — tranquilizers — in the systems of those who are dying. Benzos made up 49% of samples in January, compared to 15% of samples in July 2020.
"We're particularly concerned about the toxicity of the drugs detected in many of the deaths recorded in January," Lapointe said. "The findings suggest that the already unstable drug supply in B.C. is becoming even deadlier, underscoring the urgent need for supervised consumption options, prescribing for safe supply, and accessible treatment and recovery services."
According to the BC Coroners Service, no deaths have been reported at supervised consumption or drug overdose prevention sites.
In her name
The Squamish OPS is dedicated to the memory of late Squamish resident Sarah Jane Thompson, a vocal advocate for harm reduction who died of drug toxicity during a relapse in November.
While Thompson didn't live to see it open, her legacy lives on in all who knew her and in the facility she helped to create.
Becker said she was on the phone with Thompson for advice about the OPS as it was coming together.
"When this was in the beginning stages, I was calling her constantly," Becker said.
"So much of the work I have done on this I have to thank her for so much. I just want to honour her and the work she has done."
Becker added that Thompson's focus was also on ending the stigma that surrounds drug use and addictions.
"Stigma is driving people to use alone, and the pandemic is pushing people further into isolation," said Mental Health and Addictions Minister Sheila Malcolmson in a provincial news release on March 2. "We stepped up our response to these emergencies as quickly as possible in B.C., but the effects of the pandemic on the illicit drug supply chain has made drugs dramatically more toxic than a year ago and, tragically, more lethal. We know people are hurting, and we have to do more to stop this terrible surge in overdose deaths,"
Becker said she has been overwhelmed by how Squamish has embraced the facility.
"The community has been incredible," she said, noting she put out a call on social media for backpacks and quickly received about 50. Their neighbours at the Squamish Public Library have been inquisitive and supportive, she said.
"And so welcoming. The whole District has been amazing. VCH has been so supportive," she added. "It has just been this huge mobilization and it has just been so great. This town never ceases to impress me. It makes me so proud to live here."
The Squamish OPS facility is open seven days a week from 4 p.m. to 10 p.m.
Becker said they may expand or change the hours in time, but the current hours are the ones that 911 call stats show are the most dangerous for substance users.