The forum Partners in Resilience – Gathering Strength on Monday was dedicated to the memory of the late Teesha Sharma. (Phil Melnychuk/THE NEWS)

Overdose action team still considers low barrier an option

Forum in Maple Ridge honoured Teesha Sharma

No more low barrier” may be the condition of new homeless beds in Maple Ridge for Mayor Mike Morden, but members of the Ridge Meadows Overdose Community Action Team are singing a different tune.

That group hosted a forum on Monday titled “Partners in Resilience-Gathering Strength.”

Participants checked in at 8:30 a.m. Then at 8:40 a.m., they heard the music of the Low Barrier Chorus.

Kat Wahamaa, the event organizer, said the name “Low Barrier Chorus” is a self-deprecating reference to the fact that anyone, regardless of their tone-deafness, can join.

“You don’t have to sing well to be on the chorus.”

She did not want to debate, or get politicial, she said, adding it is important that people not get entrenched in positions such as “low barrier” or “no low barrier.”

The approach of the people at Gathering Strength was based on evidence and experience.

“They are more focused on what is working out in the world,” she said. “It’s a spectrum in terms of how we can deal with this.”

The public should consider that low-barrier housing allows people with the highest needs to access programs and services, Wahamaa said.

It is the fastest way to get them help, she added.

Wahamaa said there is plenty of evidence that housing first is a policy that works.

“That is something that would make sense in this community, and make sense in every community.”

Some people choose full abstinence, some suboxone and others methadone, she said.

“We need a range of resources, because everyone’s path is different.”

The late Teesha Sharma was honoured at the event.

“We dedicated the day to her. At the beginning of the day, we took a moment,” said Wahamaa, adding that the 2018 under-40 citizen of the year was a member of the organizing committee and did amazing things.

“Teesha had a lot of good ideas, and wasn’t afraid to speak up for people who are vulnerable.”

Wahamaa co-chairs the action team with medical health officer Dr. Ingrid Tyler, who spoke about the overdose epidemic, along with Donald MacPherson of the Canadian Drug Policy Coalition, and Leslie McBain of Moms Stop the Harm.

The main studio at The ACT was full to capacity with people who attended the event, with about 130.

“Our main goal was bringing people together, which we did,” said Wahamaa.

The response from community organizations was discussed by groups including the Salvation Army, B.C. Emergency Health Services, Alouette Addictions, Fraser Health and Raincity Housing.

The forum heard a general feeling that there needs to be more resources in many areas, including treatment, recovery and harm reduction.

It also heard that the federal drug policy is outdated, and not responsive to the current crisis.

“It’s just not helping the situation right now,” Wahamaa said.

There is also frustration that the public could build a level of acceptance with the opioid crisis, rather than continue to search for solutions.

“It’s like a house fire. It’s a medical emergency. It isn’t something we can just leave,” said Wahamaa.

As Tyler told the group, the situation is not improving, with 1,489 suspected drug overdose deaths in 2018 being almost the same as 2017 – 1,487.

The majority are men –1,194 last year – as well as 295 women.

The number of such deaths in Maple Ridge was 27 last year, which was a small decrease from 33 in 2017.

Fentanyl was present in illicit drug overdose deaths 85 per cent of the time last year, compared with 82 per cent the year prior.

Wahamaa said the Low Barrier Chorus is working on crafting a musical called “The Low Barrier Cabaret,” featuring hip hop and spoken word. They plan to perform a set on Earth Day.

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