Beating the opioid crisis with faith
From harm reduction to recovery
by Keri Vermeulen
I t was the single worst day in British Columbia for drug overdoses. On April 2017’s “Welfare Wednesday”, when more than 100,000 people collect social assistance cheques in the province, BC Emergency Health Services says a record high 130 calls for overdose response were taken. Of those, 62 were in Vancouver Coastal Health region, 38 in Fraser Health and 18 for both the Interior and Island regions. The heart-breaking problem of overdose and death, mostly from illicit fentanyl use, continues to take its toll, traumatizing inner city communities, first responders, law enforcement and families.
Previous overdose epidemic
But this is not the first time Metro Vancouver has faced an overdose epidemic. In the mid-90’s, the region endured four years of high numbers of overdoses due to an influx of highly potent heroin. In 1995, a group of concerned people marched to Oppenheimer Park in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside (DTES) neighbourhood, where they erected 400 crosses to commemorate and mourn the loss of the same number of overdose deaths that year. Pastor Randy Barnetson was one of those people. “Four hundred people died from drug overdoses when I came here 20 years ago,” Barnetson shares, recalling the early days of Street Church, the church he planted at Hastings and Main during that time. It was an answer to the call God had put on his heart to minister in the DTES, where an estimated 95 per cent of the people in the inner core are drug addicted, and 75 per cent suffer from some form of mental illness.
In the Fraser Valley, Langley area hairdresser, and community volunteer, Shirley Sturcz, remembers the overdose epidemic of the mid-90s. At that time, she was living in the DTES, addicted to cocaine and heroin. It’s hard to imagine the thoughtful and poised Sturcz in a lifestyle that saw her living in broken down single room occupancy hotels, sometimes homeless, and in jail a handful of times for addiction-related crimes. In and out of foster care and group homes at 13, Sturcz was on her own by 15 years old. She moved in with her boyfriend, started using drugs and working the street. “I thought I was living the high life. I felt glamourous and grown up,” Sturcz remembers of her teenage years. “But I went from doing (drugs) just at night on the weekends to doing it 24-hours a day. And it stayed like that for 28 years.”
It wasn’t until 2010, that Sturcz was sent to a recovery house in Langley, as part of a court sentence. Through that house, she found herself at a place called Recovery Church, where she asked Jesus to come into her heart. “I had said those simple little words to accept Jesus,” Sturcz remembers. “Without me even knowing, I began to change. Everyone in my recovery house was relapsing, but I wasn’t.” Sturcz shares about her time as an addict and the road to recovery with shame free grace. She says back in the 1980s and early 90s, clean needles were nearly impossible to come by. One person would obtain a needle, and the same needle, designed to be used once, would be used by a group of people for up to a month. “It was a precious commodity,” she says. “The person who owned it would sharpen it on matchbooks to avoid the barbs it got from so much use.” As needles became easier to obtain, they would sell for a few dollars each on the street.
Four Pillars approach to help
By 2001, the City of Vancouver had unveiled a groundbreaking program to help the plight of the addicted. The Four Pillars approach would focus on drug education, prevention, enforcement and something called harm reduction. That meant providing services to addicted people to reduce the harm that results from drug abuse – such as spread of disease, blood infections, crime, overdose and death. Measures include free needles for IV drugs users, safe injection sites providing a sterile, supervised indoor environment to inject drugs, and the methadone program, which is a doctor prescribed replacement for opiates. Taken orally, daily, methadone reduces cravings for opiates and eliminates withdrawal symptoms – but it is a synthetic opiate, and highly addictive.
Last year saw a sudden and seemingly unstoppable flow of illicit fentanyl in Metro Vancouver. Fentanyl,50 to 100 times more powerful than morphine, is produced pharmaceutically to be administered to people with severe pain. Today, illegal drug producers, have the equipment for assembly line, black market production of fentanyl, with little control or care over potency. In spite of harm reduction measures, 2016 saw the highest numbers of fatal overdoses ever, with 922 people in British Columbia dying. Most of those deaths happened in Vancouver and Surrey. Approval has now been given by Health Canada for three more safe injection sites in Vancouver, and two in Surrey.
The good news at work
Barnetson believes the long-term solution to addiction is leading people to Jesus, discipling them and training them to be leaders in their communities. “As a Christian, I believe there should be no-strings attached funding for faith-based groups, because they are working,” Barnetson says. “There are people who have come into Street Church over the lasts20 years as an addict, and they are now free and pastoring in different places, because they have found purpose and meaning in their lives.”
An issue of Faith
Addictions specialist, Dr. Paul Sobey agrees that recovery is about faith. “Recovery, at it’s core is an issue of faith,” Sobey shares, saying part of that faith journey means connecting with others in the recovery community, and sharing each other’s experience. “I would see people with very severe disease (addiction) be transformed into well people. I didn’t prescribe them any medications or perform surgery. All I did was offer connection.” Sobey says the medical community needs to realize that harm reduction programs, such as prescribing methadone, is merely a starting point. “It’s absolutely necessary, but it’s not a comprehensive treatment plan.”
Sturcz, who was on methadone for one year after getting off street drugs, agrees. With almost seven years of sobriety, and abundant life that includes a career, a safe home and a community, Sturcz offers her own simple list of ingredients to full recovery from drug addiction:
• Safe housing: Having a place outside her using environment was key. At the recovery house in Langley, Sturcz found safety, comfort and other women to connect with.
• Faith: It was inviting Jesus into her heart that truly began to change Sturcz from the inside. “I had to break ties with some old friends and that was painful,” she says. “But I was able to let them go and trust God more.”
• Community Support: From friendship to going to church, step groups and meetings, Sturcz built healthy connections. “It is all positive and beautiful.”