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Mother returns to ‘The Strip,’ Surrey, B.C.’s drug-abuse ‘hotspot’

Revisiting the Surrey Strip

Donna May, whose daughter Jac Gray died in 2012, revisits Surrey's 135A Street to find it lacks promised overdose prevention sites

Donna May, left, whose daughter Jac Gray frequented the Surrey Strip shortly before she died in August, 2012, stops to talk to an RCMP officer during a visit to the area in Surrey, B.C., Wednesday, Feb. 15, 2017.

The first time Donna May walked down the stretch of road known as the Surrey Strip, she felt afraid. The Mississauga resident had never before seen such a concentration of drug use: 50 or 60 people, sickness and addiction – a sense of desperation jarring against the backdrop of a sunny winter's day. She remembered that no one was smiling.

"It was like walking from one world into another," Ms. May said of that day in January, 2012, on 135A Street, the quiet stretch in the Fraser Valley city that has become a semi-permanent homeless encampment rife with drug use.

"I was very afraid. It really hit me how bad things get when you wait for your child to hit rock bottom."

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Ms. May had travelled from Ontario to care for her adult daughter, Jac, who had lived on the Strip before being hospitalized for serious complications related to her intravenous drug use. She died eight months later, at age 35.

This month, five years after that first visit, Ms. May revisited the Strip. Once a self-described "staunch Conservative," so put off by drug use that she felt deeply ashamed of her own daughter, she returned as a changed woman – a vocal advocate for drug-policy reform who has taken her case to Ottawa and the United Nations. She wondered if the Strip had changed, too.

Jac lived on the Strip before being hospitalized for serious complications related to her intravenous drug use. She died eight months later, at age 35.

Like the rest of B.C., Surrey is in the midst of an overdose crisis; 110 people died of illicit drug overdoses in 2016 – compared to the 10-year average of 45 – and another nine died last month.

The city has historically been reluctant to embrace harm-reduction measures. Mayor Linda Hepner opposed supervised injection sites as recently as early 2016 but later softened to say they must be connected to clinical facilities that offer treatment and recovery options as well.

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After years of calls from harm-reduction advocates, the city recently applied for federal approval to open two supervised injection sites.

In December, as overdose deaths in B.C. soared to record levels, the province announced it would immediately open numerous "overdose prevention sites" – bare-bones, indoor spaces where users can inject in the company of staffers trained to reverse overdoses – as an emergency measure while it awaited federal approval for the official sites. This included two overdose prevention sites in Surrey: one at the Quibble Creek Sobering and Assessment Centre and one at a "mobile medical support unit" on the Surrey Strip, both to be opened by mid-December.

Donna May, right, runs into Tracie Jones – a registered nurse at Surrey Emergency who knew Ms. May’s daughter – during a visit in the area known as “The Strip” in Surrey, B.C.

But as of late February, no such sites exist in Surrey. Victoria Lee, chief medical health officer for Fraser Health, said the health authority instead chose to embed services at existing sites, for example expanding shelter hours, stationing a mobile medical unit on the Strip to respond to overdoses and hiring new staff members for a shelter and drop-in centre, both operated by the Lookout Emergency Aid Society.

Suspected overdose events in the Fraser Health region have decreased from 5.5 a day in December to 4.5 a day in February, Dr. Lee said, suggesting these other strategies are working.

"The enhanced services that we have implemented across Surrey and other communities, we are seeing some positive impacts [from]."

Still, Provincial Health Officer Perry Kendall, who announced the overdose prevention sites in December, said he was surprised and disappointed to learn there were no indoor spaces available for drug users in Surrey despite the recent ministerial orders.

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"An overdose prevention site is a place indoors where people can inject with some supervision," he said. "We leave it up to the health authorities to determine where a good place would be. But certainly, we know that Surrey has an issue. It's a hotspot."

The area known as “The Strip” in Surrey, B.C.

Meanwhile, a new 24-hour satellite law-enforcement office announced by the city around the same time opened promptly. Front-line staff and drug users on the Strip who spoke with The Globe and Mail said that initial fears of increased harassment and intimidation never came to pass, and that officers have been helpful in conducting welfare checks each day.

But the idea of such a presence remains problematic for some. Dave Diewert, who organizes with a group called Alliance Against Displacement and communicates weekly with residents of the Strip, questioned the reason for such a police presence and the interests that presence services.

"If it were a matter of building relationships and directing people to services as the police say, then why have cops with guns carry out that job and not simply social workers?" he said.

Katrina Pacey, executive director of the Pivot Legal Society, echoed the sentiment.

"I don't know that [health-service providers and government] fully appreciate the impact that law enforcement has on the inaccessibility of services, and the message that it sends," she said. "It continues to send a message that this is a criminal law matter, that these people are breaking the law, and that the police should be a first responder in that context."

On a rainy day this month, Ms. May walked down the Strip for the first time in five years, her heart heavy and her daughter in mind. She knelt down and spoke with a young woman in a grey tent.

For Donna May, arriving from Mississauga, Ont., this is her first time revisiting “The Strip” since her daughter’s death.

"Are you afraid of getting fentanyl in your drugs?"

"No. I'm not afraid of dying, no," the young woman replied. "I am afraid of what it would do to my mom, though. That scares me. So because of that, I'm careful."

"I wish I could help you."

Ms. May continued on, stopping again to speak with a group of police and emergency-room officials touring the Strip. She introduced herself and one of the emergency-room nurses said she remembered Jac. Their eyes welled with tears, and they embraced.

One officer told the group there is a "compelling case for legalization" – an issue that Ms. May is pushing for. The officer's comment surprised her.

Donna May signs a memorial for overdose victims in the area known as “The Strip” in Surrey, B.C.

At the Lookout, Ms. May spoke with two young front-line workers who told her about available harm-reduction services, including that almost everyone on the Strip is trained to use naloxone, a drug that reverses the effects of an opioid overdoes. After her daughter's death, Ms. May had lobbied to make the drug available without a prescription; Health Canada made that change last spring.

The Strip is both better and worse now, Ms. May feels: There are more services available, but also a lot more people. The addition of tents is new.

She spotted a street-side memorial: hundreds of names scribbled on white poster board, with flowers, candles and stuffed toys placed before it.

"A wall of remembrance," she said quietly. Crouching before it, she added a name in blue ballpoint pen: "JACY GRAY (my girl) XOX. Love you forever and always."

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