City hall should fund a Surrey group that represents people addicted to drugs, says a UBC professor.
SANSU, Surrey Area Network of Substance Users, has been around for five years and has about 280 members but is struggling to find regular funding for its projects.
“I think they’re underfunded,” said Mark Haden (pictured), Adjunct Professor of UBC’s School of Population and Public Health. “I think city hall should fund them, quite frankly. It’s a municipal problem. One can argue it’s a provincial problem or federal, but personally what I’ve noticed is when the municipal folks step up to the plate, then things change.”
But Mayor Linda Hepner said the city is not in the business of directly funding a health-response group.
“We do have annual grant opportunities for which they might qualify if it is a registered charity,” said Hepner. “Otherwise, (we) would expect the group to utilize provincial resources.”
Haden, who has hosted lectures and videos on drugs and managing addictions for nearly 30 years, says drug users are important.
“They’re the most marginalized people in our society and people who have no voice behave in a way that is less constructive than people who do have a voice.”
He said drug user groups like SANSU, or VANDU in Vancouver, offer people that voice and said “quite frankly, that improves behaviour.”
“Every once in a while you’ll hear people say things like VANDU saved my life,” Haden said. “They can be seen as treatment. People behave better when they’re listened to. Many people in those groups have been traumatized and the process of marginalization on someone who is traumatized makes their behaviour worse. Including them in our society and giving them a voice makes their behaviour better.”
Haden led a SANSU-hosted series at SFU Surrey last year. The six-week seminar covered everything from how body systems are affected by drugs to the recovery process to family dynamics to helping those with addictions to harm reduction theory.
“We had a full house,” said Haden, noting attendees were addicts, family members of addicts, professionals as well as politicians.
Changing perceptions is key to finding solutions, said Haden. He noted public health is the reciprocal relationship between three factors: the host, the agent and the environment. In this case, the drug user, the drug and society.
“Of those three corners of the triangle, the one that has the greatest impact is how we think about drugs, the context,” said Haden. “Take fentanyl. Think about how people talk about the fentanyl deaths. Some people will say the drug is the problem, fentanyl is killing people. Some will say the problem is the drug user, if they didn’t take the drug everything would be fine. But I think the problem is the context of drugs in our society…. Fundamentally, if we think about bad people taking bad drugs, we’re off track.”
SANSU president Ron Moloughney agreed with Haden’s comments.
Moloughney is a former alcohol, cocaine and heroin addict who lived on Surrey’s 135A Street before becoming clean four years ago. He visits his former home, the area known as “The Strip,” every week.
“It reminds me of where I don’t want to go again,” said Moloughney.
He now works to be a voice for those still caught in the web of drug addiction, homelessness and issues of mental health.
“I came to realize that there’s got to be a better way. I’m more of a guide,” said Moloughney. “I try to to help those (who) want help.”
SANSU has just released a video, set to the song “Our House” by Madnesss, featuring residents of 135A Street walking out of a red tent holding handwritten signs (see below).
“Can’t afford rent so we live in a tent,” their pages read. “Most of us didn’t choose to be here. Most of you are one cheque away from being homeless too.
“SANSU advocates for affordable solution for all,” it continues. “Help us help ourselves. Come spend a night with us. Sooner or later. Support SANSU’s work.”
Moloughney says it’s meant to raise awareness.
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“Basically to bring awareness to the government and to the public that the street people are there. They need help. The government isn’t doing enough to help them at all,” he told the Now.
Moloughney hopes to help shift both the public’s perception and the government’s attitude toward homeless people and those with addictions.
To do that, SANSU plans to create more videos. “Visuals, I think, are the key to this whole solution. That and a change of attitude from the government. If you can capture the mind you can capture the heart,” he said. “Maybe it will take a video of someone actually dying on video for people to get it. This is real.”
Meanwhile, the group is also trying to organize another six-week seminar on addiction with Dr. Haden. “We’re working to get funding for another one. We have about $2,000 for it, it’s expensive to do,” said Moloughney, who said the group has some private sponsors. “We have to keep putting it out there. We have to be continuous and vigilant about it because people have a short attention span.”
SANSU also holds regular meetings, the next on Oct. 29, behind the clinic on 135A Street. The group’s focus is not necessarily getting clean, but about bringing down barriers until that day comes. The meetings are meant to be a safe place, without judgement, to discuss SANSU initiatives but also peoples’ problems and successes. Homelessness and addiction is not a choice, stressed Moloughney.
“There’s folks down there because they can’t afford to live anywhere. A one-bedroom for $700? If you’re on social assistance, you’re making that. We need affordable housing. That’s the bottom line,” he remarked. “The streets are getting more filled. They have to find some solution. The government keeps promising housing but we’re not seeing anything.”
So Moloughney will continue his fight to help others, all while continuing to battle his own demons.
“It’s very prevalent,” he revealed. Especially now, he said, because he’s been diagnosed with liver cancer and is undergoing chemotherapy and is on painkillers – opioids, his drug of choice. Forty six weeks to go, he added.
“It’s tough, but I have a lot of support. Without that support, I’d be back out there.”
To get in touch with SANSU, email email@example.com.
(SANSU President Ron Moloughney on 135A Street. Photo: Amy Reid)