photos: Drug Users Resource Centre board members Jaspal Nunner and Candace Whitehead want to be part of the transition process. Photo: Stefania Seccia

Transitioning out

The pending closure of a drug users' community hub stokes fear in the Downtown Eastside

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The Drug Users Resource Centre (DURC) serves up to 1,000 Downtown Eastside residents some days. But its looming closure has caused a wave of anxiety for those who depend on its services.

The Portland Hotel Society (PHS) has operated DURC for the last 13 years, which sits across from Oppenheimer Park on East Cordova Street. Last year, and for the first time, Vancouver Coastal Health made a request for proposals for the site’s funding.

To many people’s surprise, it was awarded to another group. That's the Lookout Emergency Aid Society, which will replace its LivingRoom Drop-In site—operating on the other side of Oppenheimer Park.

In one area, the community is losing two harm reduction hubs and replacing only one of them.

Although no timeline has been set, both DURC and the LivingRoom will be closing and a new Mental Health & Substance Use Drop-In Centre (MHSU) will open at the LivingRoom site.

Jaspal Nunner, a DURC board member, is concerned about the transition of his peer-driven board and their community driven offerings. “One thing I like about [DURC] is you’re not treated like a number, you’re treated as a person,” he says. “They know you by first name.”

The centre’s programming—including harm reduction, a First Nations sacred space, trans collective, counselling, clinic, users groups and more—has attracted a diverse population out of the community, Nunner explains, which is why he first started to participate more than a year ago. He was impressed with the kitchen, food service, computer room, movie room and a political action class that inspired him to work with DURC. Because of its peer-driven culture, the centre came to fill in the cracks to service gaps and was on the forefront of the Naloxone overdose treatment when fentanyl was a rising crisis.

David Mendes, a DURC board member, said when you walk in with a problem and speak with someone at the front desk “chances are that person picks up a phone and fixes that problem. “It’s personal and effective and I hope that’s not lost.”

Without the centre, Nunner notes he’d still be on the streets.

Nunner says he’s worried that such a steep change to the community could trigger drug users who have come to rely on the harm reduction services provided by DURC for so long, which is why the peer board members want to be more involved with the transition plan.

“We want to be involved,” he says. “The peers want to be involved in this transition but no one knows what’s going on.”

PHS was operating the centre for $634,000 annually. The LivingRoom was operating for $795,000. The new operating cost for Lookout to run the MHSU is $1 million annually.

Andrew MacFarlane, VCH’s directorof mental health and substance use and operations director of community health services, says it’s premature to give information about the programs, peers, and closure timeline because nothing has been decided yet. Representatives from VCH, DURC, PHS, and Lookout are currently meeting to shape that future, he says.

“As of right now, DURC is continuing to operate as DURC,” he says. “Even though we’ve awarded a successful contract to Lookout, we have not given the notice to the Portland Hotel Society or to DURC to wind down their programming.”

Shayne Williams, Lookout’s executive director, is confident in the transition and the society has reached out to multiple community groups.

“Rather than a space primarily designated for mental health and socialization, the former LivingRoom Drop-In will now be focused on measurable health outcomes, including referrals and connections to other agencies and programs to better meet the needs of the community,” Williams writes in response to an email from Megaphone.

While programs are still being determined, the new facility will have drug user programs, mental health programs, and programming for seniors, women, aboriginals and LGBTQ+. Renovations are expected for the kitchen facility “to help provide more frequent snacks as we expect more people to visit the building,” he adds.

Metro Vancouver owns the DURC building but VCH has the lease until 2018. There have been discussions about the overnight women’s shelter that shares the space taking over the site and becoming a 24-hours shelter.

“There’s been lots of community interest, lots of people who would like to see expanded services for women at that site,” MacFarlane adds.

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