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Let’s reframe how we view substance use and addiction, says Options Community Services

Non-profit strives to provide a safe landing place for people in need of support
Neil Arao, left, Marisca Johnson, and Griffin White, pose for a photo outside of Options Community Services Hyland House on Aug. 30, 2023. (Photo: Anna Burns)

A Surrey-based charity wants to change the narrative that can define people with substance use disorder.

Options Community Services says addiction impacts people from all walks of life and instead of demonizing a person struggling with substance use, people need to understand the journey that took them there.

“No one wakes up and says, I want to be an addict,” said Neil Arao, deputy executive director of homelessness, housing and mental health services at Options.

Staff at Options aims to look at clients through a trauma-informed lens, said Marisca Johnson, assistant program manager of homelessness services.

“Which just means we think of what they’ve gone through in the past that got them where they are today,” she said, adding staff often take the time to listen, without judgment, to what the client has gone through.

Griffin White, a shelter worker, said people often forget about the human aspect of addiction. A person could have gone through numerous traumas and doesn’t know how to self-soothe – and that’s when someone offers them something.

“That’s how it starts,” said White. “For a lot of people, I don’t think it’s as menacing as everyone makes it seem to be.”

Options strives to provide a safe landing place for vulnerable people in need of support. The organization has two shelters – Hyland House in Newton and Bill Reid Place in Cloverdale. Both have overdose prevention and safe inhalation sites.

“Both sites are monitored by cameras, so we can oversee and make sure that they’re doing OK,” Johnson said.

This provides the client with a safe environment to use, knowing that if they overdose, staff can quickly respond and call for medical help.

This is especially important as B.C. is still in the middle of a toxic drug crisis. At least 12,739 people have died of overdoses since the public health emergency was declared in April 2016. Vancouver, Surrey and Greater Victoria townships have seen the highest number of unregulated drug deaths in 2023. In Surrey, 137 people died from January to July this year.

Today (Aug. 31) is International Overdose Awareness Day. The annual campaign remembers those who have died from overdose and raises awareness. The theme of the day this year is recognizing those whose lives have been impacted by overdose.

Overdose awareness is always top of mind for staff at Options. The staff does multiple check-ins with clients throughout the day at the shelters. If they notice a client seems off, they will keep an eye on them, Johnson said.

“I think the closer the relationships we have with the clients, the more comfortable they feel with us,” Johnson said. “That really is a game changer for us if they feel comfortable.”

Oftentimes, this means the client will feel safe sharing with the staff they bought some drugs from someone they are not familiar with. Staff will then keep an extra watch on this client. This is all a part of harm reduction.

“Harm reduction is not the end goal,” Arao said. “People are always still offering resources to treatment centres and detox and mental health supports.”


One of the many programs Options offers is its home-based withdrawal management detox program, which launched in April. The program features a team of health-care and support workers supporting the client. The detox allows the individual to go through the program in the comfort and safety of their own home.

This can be especially important for the South Asian community, where addiction and substance use are highly stigmatized. This means people in this community are known to minimize how much they use.

Between 2015 and 2018, Fraser Health reported a 255 per cent increase in overdose deaths for the South Asian population.

Options has many staff members who speak Punjabi and Hindi, so they are able to help clients through the withdrawal process and offer after-care support counselling in their mother tongue.

Also, going through the program at home has several added benefits.

“This is the opportunity to work with the family and individual, identifying triggers in the household and their lifestyle, and being able to decrease that in a way that’s culturally competent, where we’re honouring their religious practices, or familial obligations,” said Arao.

Options is partnering with Julian Somers, PhD from Simon Fraser University, who will be conducting research on this project. The hope is that they can see the potential impact.

“Looking at the idea of culture and family as that extra support, and see how it functions as a viable solution for withdrawal management,” said Arao.

To learn more about the program visit

READ MORE: 198 people died in B.C. in July due to toxic drug poisonings

– With files from Lauren Collins

Anna Burns

About the Author: Anna Burns

I cover health care, non-profits and social issues-related topics for the Surrey Now-Leader.
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