Sarah Wilson and Brittney Johnstone

Sarah Wilson and Brittney Johnstone

Harm reduction service renews effort to connect with West Shore drug users

An organization that distributes free crack pipes, syringes or condoms for drug users is expanding its harm-reduction operations

An organization that distributes free crack pipes, syringes or condoms for drug users is expanding its harm-reduction operations on the West Shore.

Brittney Johnstone and Sara Wilson, support workers with Victoria AIDS Resource and Community Service Society (VARCS), will deliver clean supplies straight to homes and apartments.

The concept is about reducing the spread of disease from drug users sharing dirty needles and crack pipes, and from unprotected sex. Distributing needles, pipes and condoms reduces risk and harm – it’s the same reason people wear seat belts and bike helmets, Wilson said.

“We are giving them harm reduction supplies, but we get to look at the person and assess them. If someone says they want to go to detox, we say ‘I’ve got the number, let’s make you an appointment right now,’” Johnstone said. “We want to make sure people are using safely.”

The “Mobile X” team uses a nondescript mini van – “your average mother’s mini van,” Johnstone said, “and that’s on purpose.”

In the back of the van, cardboard boxes hold needles for intravenous drug users, crack pipes and condoms. A bright yellow bucket full of used needles deposited by clients is the only giveaway of what Mobile X is for.

The VARCS Mobile X service has been in operation for nearly 10 years, but it’s only established relationships with four long-term clients on the West Shore. The organization is making a renewed effort to connect with potential clients in an area with few services for drug users.

“We haven’t been successful in reaching people and gaining support and allies,” said Karen Dennis, executive director of VARCS. “I realize the West Shore isn’t the same as Victoria with an obvious population (of drug users) on the street.”

While advertising their services through West Shore organizations, the pair said many people they talk to doubt such a service is needed. But the Mobile X team suspects many users remain hidden, and most have homes, jobs and contribute to society.

“We want to find the invisible users,” Johnstone said. “When people say they don’t know someone who does drugs, I say, ‘I bet you do.’”

Mobile X travels across Greater Victoria, and the pair carry a cell phone for clients to call when they are in need of supplies. Across the region, the pair might meet with one or two clients per day, but some times that will hit five or six.

The process of distributing needles and pipes is discrete and Mobile X is available to people who want to be safe. Wilson and Johnstone want to make sure clients aren’t outed by the service and aren’t ashamed to ask for clean supplies.

Part of their mission with Mobile X is also to reduce the stigma that people in the community have towards drug users.

“There are drug users on the West Shore, and that’s OK,” Wilson said. “We want to stop the risk of disease.”

VARCS is a non-profit organization funded through the Vancouver Island Health Authority.

The Mobile X is available from 9 a.m. to 2:45 p.m. Monday to Friday. For more information or to book a visit call 250-888-4487.