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A needle exchange van is now making the rounds among addicts in the area

Purpose Society health van volunteer Elvis Scott at the society’s New Westminster headquarters. - TRI-CITY NEWS FILE PHOTO
Purpose Society health van volunteer Elvis Scott at the society’s New Westminster headquarters.
— image credit: TRI-CITY NEWS FILE PHOTO

It may seem like a big-city problem of little concern to suburbanites.

But drug addiction in the Tri-Cities — particularly intravenous drug-use — has hit a level where the Fraser Health Authority has called in a mobile needle-exchange van now touring Port Moody, Port Coquitlam and Coquitlam.

Staffed and operated by the Purpose Society of New Westminster, the health van began making visits to the Tri-Cities in June and has already built a clientele within each of the cities.

Drug users and those in need of health or hygienic supplies such as condoms, bandages and alcohol swabs can call the van’s mobile phone or visit wherever they see it parked in the Tri-Cities to pick up clean needles, crack-pipe mouthpieces and sterilized water to help prevent the spread of blood-born diseases such as HIV and Hepatitis C, common among drug users in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside.

Health van volunteer Greg Kostrzewa said the number of client visits has been increasing with each run into the Tri-Cities since beginning last month, with staff still trying to determine the best locations to find those in need in Coquitlam and Port Moody.

So far this month, van volunteers Kostrzewa and his partner Elvis Scott had served 31 clients in Port Coquitlam as of Wednesday, up from 18 in the city in June. In Port Moody, the Purpose had van served four people this month, up from just one in June. The van only began making stops in Coquitlam this month, so far meeting with five clients.

About 15% of the van’s client interactions in the Tri-Cities come from telephone requests for service, Kostrzewa said, with the rest coming from walk-up meetings while parked at places such Veterans Park and the Trinity United Church food bank in PoCo.

In June, the van distributed 325 new needles to intravenous drug users while taking in 100 used and potentially hazardous needles from those same people.

As of Wednesday, those numbers for this month had increased to 495 clean needles distributed from the van, with 157 dirty ones taken in an disposed of.

With all the perceived good the health van is doing in preventing disease among Tri-City drug users, not everyone in the community agrees with its purpose.

Rob Thiessen, director of the Hope for Freedom Society, a housing advocacy group that interacts with and advocates for many of the same people who use the van, said that there was simply no need for the service in the Tri-Cities and that harm-reduction services such as Purpose simply fuel the problem of drug addiction.

“We’re an abstinence-based organization and we find it hypocritical that a society hands out an instrument that allows people to use an illegal substance,” he told The Tri-City News, adding that the Tri-Cities doesn’t seem to have that many intravenous drug users.

But for Purpose Society program co-ordinator Michelle Webb, who oversees the van’s operations, the proof of the van’s value is in the growing numbers of people served.

“People are obviously using IV drugs in the Tri-Cities,” Webb said, “otherwise, we wouldn’t be there.”

The Purpose Society health van currently visits the Tri-Cities on Friday and Saturday evenings and anytime by request at 604-562-5170.

tcoyne@tricitynews.com

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