Friends and saviours: Peer program targets overdose among Ottawa's homeless

A unique program in downtown Ottawa is bringing safe injection paraphernalia directly to the drug users living on the streets, help that's hand-delivered by their friends and peers.

Ottawa Inner City Health, a non-profit organization aimed at improving access to health care for the chronically homeless, set up the peer overdose prevention team in May when drug overdoses started to spike in the downtown core.

"We use our peer workers to patrol the hotspot areas around downtown to check for people who are overdosing, and to hand out equipment that people might need," said Anne Marie Hopkins of Ottawa Inner City Health.

That equipment includes naloxone kits, pipes, water and clean needles — the essential tools of the harm reduction trade.

What's unique about this program is the people who are being paid to hand out the gear  — recovering addicts and people who used to live on the streets.

Two-person teams work six-hour shifts walking around the ByWard Market and Lowertown looking for drug hotspots, also known as shooting galleries. So far, Ottawa Inner City Health has hired seven people, referred to them by word of mouth, to act as peer outreach workers on the overdose prevention team.

The teams are busiest during the five days around "cheque day," when social assistance payments are deposited into bank accounts, and when drug use is at its peak. They're also called out when a bad batch of drugs is known to be on the streets.

JP LeBlanc and Sue Latreille were hired when the program started in May. This new job has been a life-changer for both of them.

"It makes me want to wake up in the morning and not think what I have to do to struggle to get though the day," said Latreille. "It gives me hope in life for me and other people."

As Latreille and LeBlanc scan the nooks and crannies of the ByWard Market, they often bump into friends who greet them by name, and sometimes with warm hugs.

Latreille, who doesn't want to disclose her exact age but said she is in her 50s, is a tiny woman with a strong personality and a determination to get things done. Her backpack, filled with gear, seems to weigh nearly as much as she does.

LeBlanc, 44, works out every day and is fit and lean. He's clearly well-liked by the people he passes while he walks his beat in the Market.

Both Latreille and LeBlanc know what it's like to have a drug addiction and live on the streets of downtown Ottawa.

"I've had quite a history with drugs. It's led me to some very dark, deep and dark places. I've been in jail a lot because of it," said LeBlanc. "But, that's all changed now."

In 2011 LeBlanc's girlfriend, who was also doing drugs at the time, died in his arms.

"She had endocarditis, which is a bacterial infection from shooting drugs, from shooting dirty drugs. And she got two of her valves replaced on her heart and when she came home, she wasn't strong enough and she kept using and it just happened," said LeBlanc.

"She died at home, yep, looking in my eyes."

Latreille also battles addiction.

"There probably isn't a drug I haven't done in my life.... I still struggle ... but I'm OK at where I'm at," said Latreille.

Their goal is to prevent overdoses, and they've already racked up wins. On their first night working together, Latreille and LeBlanc managed to save the life of a man who was overdosing.

"It was meant to be that we were there ... the guy just dropped," said LeBlanc. "It was just like, he was gone and then he was there. It was awesome ... it is a good feeling."

Since then, the pair has handed out over 100 naloxone kits and administered the antidote to several people, including some friends.

In the parking lot of the Shepherds of Good Hope, LeBlanc and Latreille offer up gear to some regular clients. Latreille gives quick naloxone training to Sarah Gillis, but it turns out she's used the kits many times before.

Gillis, 34, has been living on and off the streets for 15 years and is addicted to opiates and crack cocaine.

"It's more comfortable because you know you are not being judged, and they know everything that's going on with you ... and, if you are overdosing it's more comfortable to know that they are there rather than the police," Gillis said.

Since the peer program started Gillis has used several naloxone kits given to her by the peer overdose team.

"I find this program very helpful. I think a lot of people would be dead if it wasn't for this right now."

While LeBlanc and Latreille are walking around the market, another team of peers is working the halls of the Shepherds of Good Hope.

These workers knock on the dorm doors and check the beds to make sure the people in them are still alive.

"[They're] just making sure everyone is OK, breathing," said Latreille. "That is what the checks are for. And visiting, too. A friendly face is nice."

The bed checks used to take place once an hour, but since fentanyl-laced drugs began turning up last spring, the checks are now done every 15 minutes.

Anne Marie Hopkins is coordinator of the peer overdose prevention program, which she believes is the only one of its kind in Canada.

Hopkins said there's a different dynamic between peers than there is between drug users and other front-line workers.

"The peers find out a lot about where people are using and the patterns and what kind of drugs are going around, and they are able to spread that information," Hopkins said.

"Some of the peers used to use with these people years ago or once upon a time. So, it's people they really trust and people that they want help from."

Hopkins said the program is paying off,  but its future relies on funding. For now, it's operating until December with money from Ottawa Public Health.

For now, LeBlanc and Latreille show up for work with a smile and determination to help their friends and save more lives.

"It's a better high than any drug would ever give you coming out here to do this," said Latreille.

By Jennifer Beard
Source: CBC News