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FORT ST. JOHN, B.C. – Peer outreach services in Fort St. John will be transitioning to overdose prevention services starting in the new year, including plans for a mobile safe injection van.

For the last 10 months, more than 20 peers with lived experiences with substance abuse have patrolled the streets day and night to offer harm reduction supplies and food to those who are struggling, while tackling the stigma of drug addiction in the city.

Since April, the peers responded to 34 emergency calls and 14 overdoses where naloxone was administered, all with positive outcomes, according to members. But funding for their program, through Northern Health, came to an end on November 28th.

Angela DeSmit, chief operating officer for Northern Health in the northeast, said the peer program is being “restructured” to include mobile overdose prevention, utilizing a team of a three – a driver who’s also a life skills worker, a nurse, and a peer advocate.

DeSmit says the outreach team was only a temporary strategy among many Northern Health initiatives. A permanent overdose prevention site is also planned and expected to open in the city at a later date, according to the health authority.

“With the outreach team, we were nowhere close to providing OPS, an overdose prevention site,” said DeSmit. “This is one of the strategies in how to put into a place a service until we were able to start up the OPS service to really help out the vulnerable population. Some of them live on the streets, but others just may need those services as well.”

So far this year, there have been at least 20 fatal overdoses of illicit drugs in Northeast B.C. Between January and August, there were 13 deaths in the South Peace and 4 in the North Peace, according to the latest available data from the Coroners Service. There was one death in Fort Nelson.

DeSmit said the revised program will be monitored for its effectiveness in the new year.

Still, it’s a stark contrast and big change from the lived experience of the peers, who patrolled the city on foot to offer hygiene and naloxone kits, first aid and food, information on detox and treatment services, and warm clothing to those in need.

Peers were provided $300 a month by the health authority for supplies, while roughly $1,000 a week was used to pay peers. On December 1st, the health authority posted a job opening for a peer advocate, a unionized position at $26.42 to $28.63 per hour with benefits, and requiring a Grade 12 education and driver’s licence.

Former peer leader Terrilyn Schultz had applied to work for the mobile unit but later rescinded her application. She says the new direction set by Northern Health cuts out the peer aspect of the outreach program altogether, and plans to seek grant funding to continue the original peer team.

“Northern Health has made a van that’s a safe injection site, which are two totally different things. Apples and oranges is what we’re talking about,” said Schultz. “They want to hire a couple of peers to work on this mobile unit, but you have to go through all this criteria.”

Jared Braun, executive director of the Fort St. John Salvation Army, says the move is disappointing, as many of the peers involved in the program were once residents of the Northern Centre of Hope, and had a real sense of pride being out on the streets to offer help.

“We serve a lot of the same guests and their heart, their desire, is to really be there on the front lines working with some of the most vulnerable in our community,” Braun said. “So it was a bit disappointing to hear that the support they’d been receiving is changing.”

Braun said he’s aware the peers are looking to continue on a volunteer basis, independent of Northern Health.

“That’s often more challenging to be able to maintain that,” he said. “Hopefully they’re able to get some other means of support to carry on the good work they’re trying to do.”

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