A big blue bus is ready to roll through Chilliwack as a mobile clinic to serve the needs of street people in the downtown core.
Called the Fraser Healthy Options Clinic, the modified passenger bus will be replacing the blue needle exchange van that used to operate weekday afternoons in the Empress Lane parking lot, run by Pacific Community Resources Society.
While debate over harm reduction rages on in Abbotsford, Chilliwack has quietly supported its own needle exchange program for 20 years, with firm backing from city officials, the BIA and business community.
It also attracted broad-based support from the community, and has a solid record of keeping dirty needles off the streets.
“In some years, the Chilliwack program collected more needles off the streets than it handed out,” said manager Kim Lloyd, adding that when any cleanup crew members find a syringe downtown, it gets returned right back to them.
About 400 people are part of the HIV/AIDS and Hepatitis C program in Chilliwack which includes IV drug users, the homeless, and sex trade workers.
Last year the needle exchange program logged about 2,500 visits, since many individuals would pick up supplies for multiple users in their households, said Lloyd. Some would come from communities like Agassiz or Boston Bar.
The newly renovated bus with a colourful local landscape design on the side of it, promises to be an improvement over the old van.
“Our clients used to have to stand outside no matter what the weather,” said program supervisor Sam Mohan. “Now they can come inside and sit down with us. We’ve got space for expanded outreach and education, testing and immunizations, and more supplies and free offerings like clothing and toiletries.”
Staff finally made the transfer of program files and supplies from the van, to the mini mobile clinic on the bus last week.
PCRS ran the HIV-Hep C program from downtown storefronts near Five Corners for more than a decade, before moving it to Southgate Mall, said Mohan. The needle exchange went mobile in 2006 and has been operating out of a Dodge van since 2009.
“It was supposed to be temporary, for only two years,” said Mohan. “But it turned out to be more than four years.”
One afternoon a week will see a public health nurse on duty.
“The mobile clinic idea is a tremendous step toward improving what was already a very successful program,” said Stewart McLean, co-chair of the Chilliwack Healthier Community Stewardship Council.
The bus, donated to PCRS by Mobile Youth Outreach of Surrey, has the potential to reach even more people than ever before.
“To put this kind of resource on the street, where it can reach so many of our marginalized residents, is exactly the kind of initiative we want in Chilliwack,” said McLean.
The 22-foot bus will be parked at the soon-to-be-open Chilliwack Health and Housing Contact Centre at Young Road and Hocking when not in use, and PCRS officials will operate the mobile clinic with funding and a mandate from Fraser Health.
All services offered from the clinic on wheels, will also be offered at the contact centre when it opens this fall, to ensure continuity.
“When you look at this bus, within context of opening the new contact centre, it couldn’t be better as a way to connect people with the resources they need,” said McLean. “And that’s the whole point of all our efforts. All the pieces are finally coming together.”