By Pam Wright
Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
The hand of Reach Out Chatham-Kent Missions’ addiction fighting Peer-2-Peer program is ready to extend to all corners of the municipality.
It’s happening thanks to Health Canada’s Substance and Addictions Program which has granted the non-profit $710,000 to expand its peer initiative.
R.O.C.K. Missions operations co-ordinator Renee Geniole said the funding is good news in light of the sharp increase in opioid poisoning deaths and drug related visits to local emergency rooms.
Between 2016 and 2020, Chatham-Kent experienced a greater than a 280 per cent increase in ER visits involving opioids, and a 400 per cent spike in opioid related deaths. Exacerbated by the pandemic, 2020 saw the largest rise in opioid-related deaths in five years.
One drug – fentanyl – is largely to blame.
“Fentanyl is in everything anymore,” Geniole told The Voice. “We warn everyone about the dangers of fentanyl, including crack cocaine and methamphetamine users. What they are cutting the drugs with now is so dangerous. We can’t ignore the opioid epidemic happening across Chatham-Kent. These rates may sound staggering but they only scratch the surface of the true prevalence of opioid poisonings in the community.”
Geniole said the actual number is far higher as “hundreds” of opioid poisonings go unreported due to systemic barriers that continue to push those who use substances to the margins. Lack of access to services, stigma, medical violence and criminalization are a few examples of the barriers faced by the folks R.O.C.K. works with.
The expansion of the already existing Peer-2-Peer program will help fill a “critical gap,” she added, in harm reduction and substance use services to residents in rural and marginalized parts of the municipality.
According to Geniole, the Peer-2-Peer program supports the engagement of People with Lived and Living Expertise (PWLE) to provide low-barrier access to information, harm reduction supplies and community-driven outreach for those experiencing homelessness and/or using substances.
Currently operating out of Chatham since November 2020, in response to the opioid crisis, the Peer-2-Peer effort sees people with lived experience fulfill informal roles as leaders and caregivers in the community. They engage with people in need, fostering deep and trusting relationships, helping them connect with services and deal with issues.
Geniole said R.O.C.K. Missions is grateful for the sizeable federal grant, as well as the supportive relationships it has with other agencies such as Chatham-Kent Public Health, which lent its expertise to help them apply for the grant.
“We knew Health Canada (under the substance use and addictions umbrella) take what they do very seriously,” Geniole added. “We went full on with our biggest wish list.”
Noting that rural areas are coming into greater focus when it comes to addiction supports, Geniole said there’s still a long way to go to combat entrenched prejudice around the issue.
“There are still a lot of old-school ideas,” she said. “We think that because we live in a small tight-knit community opioid issues don’t affect us.
“But that’s not true, it’s not factual.”
R.O.C.K. is still in the midst of rolling out the Peer-2-Peer’s program latest phase and will be hiring some new employees.
As for getting a vehicle to carry the help carry R.O.C.K.’s message, Geniole said that’s an item that remains on R.O.C.K.’s wish list. The latest funding does not allow vehicle purchases.
R.O.C.K. Missions began in August 2019 with a goal of providing a different model of care to people experiencing homelessness. The organization currently facilitates outreach in Chatham, Wallaceburg, Blenheim and Ridgetown and is the operating partner of James Street Drop-In in Wallaceburg with Ska:Na Learning Centre and the United Way of Chatham-Kent.