Kamloops service providers feeling singled out, scapegoated by divisive politics

“People need support at the beginning, the middle and the end of their journeys. And that’s why we need to focus on collaborative efforts,” says one local service provider.
Grey-clad building with red awnings and red signage that reads "Ask Wellness Society." Left side of building features a colourful mural of a woman who seems to be growing roots as she holds an nurtures who seems to be her child.
ASK Wellness Society, located at 433 Tranquille Rd., provides social services seven days a week. Out back behind this location, a 24/7 vending machine dispenses harm reduction supplies. Kyra Grubb / The Wren

Kamloops (Tk’emlúps) is home to a wide variety of social service agencies that offer various programs that benefit community members of different socioeconomic statuses and circumstances. 

While it may seem these agencies are at odds given recent politics pitting one against another and their differing missions, conversations with providers reveal common goals, shared interests and a tightly-knit collaborative web. 

Ahead of the new year, much has been discussed concerning comments made by Mayor Reid Hamer-Jackson about ASK Wellness Society and director Bob Hughes. 

Leading up to last year’s municipal election, Hamer-Jackson was vocal about his frustration with “street crime,” an issue he believes is partly fueled by harm reduction tactics.  

Hamer-Jackson’s business, Tru Market Truck and Auto Sales, is located on Victoria Street West — an area of town chock full of social services. 

The downtown business neighbours the Emerald Centre shelter, the Rosethorn House supportive housing complex, the Mustard Seed Outreach Centre and a recreation area and storage facility for unhoused residents.  

Hamer-Jackson has said repeated instances of property crime have resulted in him opening 95 files with the RCMP.

Last week, The Wren spoke with Hamer-Jackson following a tumultuous news day in which publications questioned his absence from team-building meetings with fellow councillors. 

While one publication quipped, “dude, where’s my mayor,” The Wren was able to obtain a  comment the next day, Thursday, Jan. 12. Early that week, the mayor’s assistant informed The Wren that Hamer-Jackson wouldn’t be available until Thursday afternoon as he was on vacation. 

Hamer-Jackson says he hopes everyone can put their differences aside and get going on enacting change.

“I think we need to stop the fighting, get moving, and get people healthy,” he remarks in response to queries about the recent drama at city hall.  

Since the election, Hamer-Jackson has been criticized for his inability to adapt to rules and regulations, limits to power and the need to back away from certain advocacy efforts

“I don’t think we’re doing anybody any favours, including the people on the street, by continuing to do what we’re doing,” he adds.

Hamer-Jackson has previously said he felt his focus on community safety resonated with those who voted for him.

Speaking with The Wren, he suggests social disorder is the result of a concentration of low-barrier social services in the downtown core including wet shelters, a term some use to describe shelters that allow substance use on the property. 

Though it’s unclear what exactly he would like city council to change, he suggests more strict rules, more recovery-focused services and dispersal of these services could better support people living on the streets. 

While Hamer-Jackson has used terminology such as “wet” and “dry” to differentiate between shelters and supportive housing complexes that focus on, or do not focus on, harm reduction efforts, local service providers say ease-of-use terminologies such as “wet” and “dry” are reductionistic at best.

Moreover, all social service agencies, whether they allow or don’t allow substance use at shelter locations and supportive housing complexes, are inherently in the business of harm reduction. The goal is to get people off the street so they can access a variety of life-saving services.

Shallow terminology results in misconceptions

Members of the public may assume the use of substances determines who can access shelters, but service providers such as the Mustard Seed and managing director Kelly Tomson explain access depends on behaviour, not substance use. 

While shelters that allow substance use on the premises are often referred to as wet shelters, and shelters that do not allow substance use on the premises are often referred to as dry, it isn’t that simple.

Jeremy Cain, director of outreach and clinical services at ASK Wellness Society, says, “there’s an immense amount of nuance associated with social services.” 

He believes terminology used to differentiate between shelters oversimplifies their complexities. 

Thomson explains that you’re not allowed to use substances on-site at the Mustard Seed outreach centre and the winter shelter at the Yacht Club. Therefore, technically making them dry. 

“But, if you’ve used a few hours ahead of time and come in, we do a behavioural assessment, and if we believe that you’ll be fine and you won’t cause a problem, then, by all means, we’ll let you in,” says Thomson.

“If you’re combative or anything like that, and we’re unable to talk you down, then, unfortunately, we wouldn’t be able to let you inside,” he adds. 

A spokesperson at the Mustard Seed explains, “it is [the Mustard Seed’s] goal to keep people off the streets. We certainly don’t want anyone to be left out in the cold and experience harm due to exposure when it’s something we can prevent.”

“A shelter is designed by its very nature to be the lowest barrier service provided,” echoes ASK Wellness Society’s Cain. “If you find somebody on the street, particularly in extreme weather conditions, you’re going to want to get that individual inside, but then you run into a myriad of circumstances where [providers] then encounter the intersection between addiction issues, mental health issues or what have you.”

“If you allow a personal substance use issue to be a barrier to entry, then you have an individual on the street that can’t access shelter … the exact circumstance shelters are attempting to avoid,” says Cain. 

“There is no magic solution for that person you see on the street,” he adds.

Thomson echoes the sentiment saying, “each person is an individual, and with that being said, one person’s needs are going to be different than the next. The reason why one person is on the street is most likely different than the next person.”

“[Research shows] there are a bunch of different ways into homelessness, so there needs to be an equal understanding that there has to be a bunch of different ways out of it,” Thomson explains.

A large grey blue building features signage that reads "THE MUSTARD SEED"
The Mustard Seed in Kamloops is home to a wide variety of social services, including an outreach and recovery centre. Kyra Grubb / The Wren

Despite lambasting, agencies continue important work

Cain explains scapegoating specific agencies and programs is detrimental because there is a considerable need for a variety of services to meet people where they’re at on their individual journeys. 

While harm reduction and its perceived adverse effects were top of mind here in Kamloops leading up to the 2022 municipal elections, there is a history of implemented harm reduction strategies here in B.C. dating back as early as 1959. 

But, support for harm reduction has ebbed and flowed depending on political rhetoric concerning substance use or drugs in general, according to research from public health experts across Canada.  

While we currently associate harm reduction with issues connected to the opioid epidemic, harm reduction gained public recognition in response to rising rates of HIV in the late 80s. 

Research into the subject reveals that political scapegoating of programs has complicated the implementation of harm reduction strategies.

But with Illicit drug toxicity being the leading cause of unnatural death in British Columbia, scapegoating agencies can be dangerous. 

In terms of getting people help, Cain says, “the amount of effort it takes to get one person into recovery is one thing, but it really is a lifelong journey. People need support at the beginning, the middle and the end of their journeys. And that’s why we need to focus on collaborative efforts.”

“When we work together, we can better identify gaps … I can say from experience scapegoating certain agencies or going after certain programs isn’t helpful … we really have to look at this as a long-standing collaborative approach if we want to get over some of these issues.”

A varied mix of services reduces harm

Social service agencies who call Kamloops home maintain they continually work together to get as many people off the street as possible so that they can then work to address the myriad of issues associated with homelessness. 

That being said, different agencies do things differently to better address various needs.

Take the Mustard Seed, for example. The outreach centre at 181 Victoria St. W features a day room, a women’s shelter, a men’s recovery centre, and a health and wellness centre. 

Managing director Kelly Tomson explains the agency does a lot of harm reduction even though the public may assume differently given their shelters and supportive living complexes are technically dry. 

“Giving out meals, providing clothing, socks and underwear and helping [our clients] work through whatever they need to work through is harm reduction,” says Tomson.

While the Mustard Seed does not provide needles or paraphernalia to assist clients in safe substance use, they do provide Naloxone if needed because, as Thomson says, “it helps keep people alive.” 

Thomson explains that while the Mustard Seed chooses to focus on harm reduction in the form of building relationships so that they can get clients into recovery, it does not mean the work other agencies are doing is unimportant or detrimental to our community.

“Just because it isn’t our lane doesn’t mean the lane isn’t needed,” he remarks. 

Agencies like ASK Wellness Society provide services often associated with harm reduction, such as drug testing, needle exchange and medication management.

While ASK does provide relatively progressive services in the face of drug toxicity, overdose death and the opioid epidemic, services provided work to ultimately limit further loss of life.

Jeremy Cain, director of outreach and clinical services at ASK Wellness Society, says, “it’s really quite something to witness conversations concerning [harm reduction] these days.” He’s especially concerned by the misconception that harm reduction aims to put drugs into the hands of users.

“Harm reduction is one of those phrases that has been used so much to mean so many different things by so many different people that it is quite the nebulous term at this point.”

“As made clear, quite literally in the title, [harm reduction] simply looks to reduce harm and is not looking to ultimately eliminate certain behaviours.”

The B.C Coroners Service 2022 review of illicit drug toxicity deaths found the growing toxicity of the illicit drug supply, containing unknown substances in unknown quantities,  was the main driver of preventable deaths. “The first priority must be to stop people from dying,” the report states, “and this will need to include a safer drug supply for people who use street drugs.”

Cain says people who use drugs need various services at differing points along their journeys. Specific clients still in the midst of addiction need services like drug testing, needle exchange and medication management.

Cain says, “evidence has been shown that harm reduction reduces rates of blood born infection … and that’s really the central reasoning behind providing clean materials … it’s to make sure that folks aren’t incurring more harm as they work through addiction.”

“With the opioid crisis, though, harm reduction, for [ASK], looks a lot like making sure that people who are using are attempting to use safely. We have our drug checking service with the FTIR machine, which essentially uses [spectrometers] to analyze drug samples so that individuals know what is in their drugs or if their drugs are what they think they are.”

Cain says providing services like drug check and needle exchange has led to an alarmist-type sentiment that assumes ASK is enabling drug users or is even giving out street-level narcotics.

In the face of such assumptions, he urges community members to refer back to the title of harm reduction itself — when in the business of harm reduction, agencies are not looking to eliminate the behaviour, they are looking to reduce harm while trying to steer folks away from addiction and into treatment and recovery services.

No matter where folks are on their individual journeys, he adds, community members should take solace in knowing that there is help at every turn. 

Hamer-Jackson believes unhoused residents deserve more options

Hamer-Jackson admires operations like the Mustard Seed for their focus on getting folks into recovery. While he told The Wren he believes harm reduction efforts are needed, he hopes agencies can offer more wrap-around services and can further focus on recovery.

“We’re basically just warehousing people … we’re putting people into buildings, and we’re not [providing] the wrap-around services needed.”

In terms of getting people the help they need, Hamer-Jackson maintains that a recovery centre removed from the hustle and bustle of our city centre would be beneficial for those in need of a recovery bed.

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