Protesters say planned overdose prevention site in Duncan is too close to schools
VANCOUVER -- Dozens of parents and concerned community members gathered in Duncan Saturday to protest the location of a new wellness and recovery centre for people struggling with addiction in Vancouver Island's Cowichan Valley.
The demonstrators argue that the planned new facility at 5878 York Rd., where Phoenix Wellness is currently located, is too close to nearby schools and other places where children gather, including the Cowichan Sportsplex and the Cowichan Aquatic Centre.
Four schools are located within a short walking distance of the facility, which is slated to include a safe consumption and overdose prevention site, as well as programs and treatment for mental health and addictions.
Florie Barga is one of the organizers of Saturday's protest. She told CTV News Vancouver Island the group's objection is not to the services being offered, but to the location where they're being provided.
She said people struggling with mental health and addictions create a "volatile" atmosphere that poses a danger to the children attending nearby schools.
"It's the location that we have an objection to," Barga said. "We totally understand and believe that the services are so needed in our community, we see it every day when we drop our kids off."
While the goal of the protest was to convince Island Health to move the facility, Barga said the health authority and the provincial government have been unwilling to change their plan.
"I'm feeling disillusioned and actually deserted by our political leaders," she said. "There are multiple groups within a community whose voices, whose interests have to be taken care of."
For its part, Island Health insists that balancing the needs and interests of multiple groups in the community is what it is doing.
"Island Health and Lookout Housing and Health Society, which will operate the overdose prevention component of the Centre, are committed to a safe and inclusive community," the health authority said in a statement to CTV News Vancouver Island. "The safety and security of individuals – particularly children and youth – is a top priority for Island Health. Security services will be provided in partnership with local government through the Safer Communities Plan and needle pickup will be done around the centre."
Island Health added that it has met with "key stakeholders" and is planning "ongoing and structured" dialogue with the community that will begin later this fall.
"Balancing the comfort, safety and security of neighbourhoods with the urgent and increasing need for mental health and substance use services is ongoing work," the health authority said in its statement. "Island Health and Lookout are committed to working with all stakeholders, including neighbours of the site and the school community, to discuss service delivery protocols before the centre opens in mid-2021. It is our hope that the ensuing months will provide an opportunity for continued conversations about this site and the important services it will deliver."
Barga said she was pleased with the turnout at Saturday's protest. While she didn't venture a guess as to how many people attended, she noted that the Facebook group where the protest was organized – called Voices for Our Children Citizen Action Group – has 670 members and is growing.
She said she's also received more than 200 calls and texts from people supporting the cause.
"I think the community is actually standing up and saying this just is not the right location," Barga said.
Not everyone who saw information about the protest on Facebook was supportive, however.
Amanda Lomax attended the rally to remind those present that everyone with a drug addiction and everyone experiencing homelessness is also someone's child.
She said she follows a lot of neighbourhood groups on Facebook and finds them to be echo chambers for anti-homeless and anti-poverty rhetoric. She said she felt someone should attend the protest Saturday to challenge such views.
Lomax also said she has experienced homelessness and sought assistance in the 5800 block of York Road in the past.
"The people in this area have been some of the kindest to me in the past, and I think that's something that people need to hear," she said. "It wasn't the SUVs or the big trucks or the nice cars driving by who stopped and asked me if I was OK. It was the people in this area."
She said calls to put services for people who are struggling somewhere else reflect an out-of-sight, out-of-mind mentality; a desire to not have to see poverty on a daily basis.
"Where are people supposed to go when there's no housing?" Lomax asked. "You can't expect anyone to deal with their mental health, with their substance (abuse), any of those issues, until they have a safe place to be at night."