Multi-agency group aims to battle Brockville-area spike in overdoses

Jes Besharah, left, Jennifer Adams of the Leeds, Grenville & Lanark District Health Unit (centre) and Brockville Police S/Sgt. Tom Fournier discuss the municipal drug strategy in downtown Brockville on Tuesday, Feb. 9, 2021. (Nate Vandermeer / CTV News Ottawa)

The number of drug overdoses in the Brockville area rose more than 75 per cent in 2020 and there's a coordinated effort to get that city's drug strategy up and running.

"We have so many people who desperately need help. They need resources. They need people there to support them. It's a huge issue in our city," said Jes Besharah, a former user who is giving her lived experience to the strategy.

"We have people that are living day-to-day, stuck in survival mode and when you're stuck in there it's impossible to make good choices, to make healthy choices, whether you want to or not," Besharah said.

She says the ongoing pandemic has also made it harder for users to seek help.

"It's really hard to get into and speak to someone, so people are feeling isolated. It's absolutely increased the numbers (of overdoses)," Besharah added.

Staggering numbers released by the Leeds, Grenville & Lanark (LGL) District Health Unit show that 105 overdoses were reported in the city of Brockville and 165 in the tri-county area in 2020, compared to 60 in Brockville and 110 in the counties in 2019.

Thirty people died in 2020 compared to 17 the previous year, with fentanyl involved in 85 per cent of overdose reports.

"I've been in this role for 11 years and I've never seen numbers like this," said Jennifer Adams, harm reduction coordinator at the LGL health unit.

Adams is part of a team working on the municipal drug strategy, a program which was started in early 2020 but was stalled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The strategy is an evidence-based, human rights framework approach to make sure agencies are working collaboratively.

"We've been meeting almost weekly for the last couple of months and we've got some task force that are getting up and going so things are starting to move," Adams said.

The Brockville Police Service is another partner in the strategy, with Staff Sgt. Tom Fournier saying a one-agency approach has not been successful.

"We've seen the growth of especially opioid addiction on the streets of Brockville over the last 10 years," Fournier said. "It's culminated in some very violent incidences in the last couple of years."

The group is trying to tackle the drug issue with a five pillar approach, which include prevention, homelessness, harm reduction, law enforcement and health & treatment.

"Part of that (last pillar) is to break the stigma of, you know, it's a bad, it's a dirty thing so that people are not as reluctant to come forward and seek treatment," Fournier said.

Prevention is a key element of the strategy and focuses on creating more accessible, city-run recreational programming for youth.

"We know that in society there has always been substance use and I think we need to be realistic in that we're not going to have a society where there isn't substance abuse of some kind happening," added Adams. "Our goal is to reduce the harms, both social economic as well as health harms that are related to substance abuse and to raise quality of life for everybody in our community."

The group is looking for funding through government grants.

"Any money that we can get will be helpful because, at the end of the day, we need the money to put in new solutions and innovative programs in our community," said Adams.

Adams says volunteers are also welcome, especially if you have lived experience with drug use.

"If you have time, if you have lived experience with substance use, we're really looking to get meaningful engagement of people that have the experience because they are the experts in the field and they know what needs to happen in our community," she said. "We can help as professionals to guide some of that work and find the funding and those kinds of things but we really need the expertise of the people that have lived and walked the walk and can really provide us with that grassroots information."

Fournier said the group is hoping to be up and running this year.

"It's a community effort and it's going to take a community to solve the issue and we're hoping to spread the word and get it out there and we're hoping for all agencies to work together and try and solve this issue."

Besharah, says the program can't start soon enough.

We need it, like, yesterday," she said. "We desperately need the help as fast as we can. The reality is that drugs are here, gangs are here, violence is here and the only way we're going to end it is by talking about it and doing action."

A link to the harm and reduction page on the LGL health unit website can be found here.