AIDS Network, Outreach, and Support Society (ANKORS) of the East Kootenay have modified their protocols in order to continue helping some of the region’s most vulnerable populations amid the COVID-19 situation, and Polly Sutherland, team lead and peer development coordinator, said she has some concerns presented by these unique circumstances.
“I’m definitely seeing people coming for supplies and people coming for food that are looking like they’re struggling,” Sutherland said.
ANKORS, a grassroots, non-profit organization established in 1993, offers harm reduction services to populations in the world who are the most vulnerable to blood-borne pathogens like HIV, AIDS and hepatitis C. They offer a needle exchange program, harm reduction supplies and condoms. They also have peer health navigators who work directly with people impacted by things like the opioid crisis, who might need referrals or emotional support.
An educator works out of their office at 46 17 Ave S in Cranbrook, who offers one-to-one education and group education on topics including blood-borne infections, substance use, harm reduction, mental health and addictions.
“Most of the staff at ANKORS, we come from a variety, we are a real mix of people but we all have a lived experience with something like that, so we’re able to really connect to people and connect with them,” Sutherland said.
Sutherland adds that she’s seeing some things resulting from the stress and isolation of this outbreak that are very concerning, adding she’s particularly concerned about women.
“Recently I’ve seen a couple of the females that come in and access our service; one’s got a black eye and she’s saying ‘well I’m with my partner and it’s getting ugly,” because that’s the only place she has to go to right now.”
Sutherland explained she’s seeing women staying in violent relationships right now because they’re having to isolate and can’t go out to access other resources they normally had.
ANKORS programs are designed to give people a break from their drug use. For example, they offer a harm reduction breakfast from 8:30 a.m. to 10 on Fridays and 9:30 to 11 on Saturdays. Because of social distancing mandates, they are still offering a breakfast wrap and coffee, but have to offer it to-go, through their side door.
People can still access their peer health navigators, information and emotional support, but it has to be done over the phone rather than in person. It’s become harder for people living in difficult circumstances get invaluable in-person support.
“Harm reduction does not put an emphasis on people to stop use, rather to support them in their decisions around reducing their harm,” Sutherland explained.
“So what I see here is that now we don’t get that because of the COVID response. I can’ talk with people at the breakfast and bring them in for a couple hours to get out of the rain and hang out and maybe rest and not be using. So that part’s really hard.”
The staff is still available, Sutherland emphasized, even though working in out of the ordinary circumstances. People who need support or fact-based information and resources can call her cell directly at 250-421-4949, or they can call Nikki, one of ANKORS’ peer health navigators at 778-687-3335. She is also available to drop supplies off without having contact with people.
If people are in need of harm reduction supplies, they can go to the side door of ANKORS on Monday, Wednesday and Thursday from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. Sutherland asks that you knock on the door and place your order with staff while respecting safe physical distance.
“We take an order of what harm reduction supplies they might need from condoms to bubble pipes, anything like that,” Sutherland explained. “We get the order for them, we bring it out, and set it down and they receive it for free.”
One way that people can help support ANKORS through these times is by donating to their harm reduction breakfasts, as they are currently trying to expand this program to include two more mornings a week that breakfast is available.
“I’ve got funding for the year, so that money would go directly to helping those people right now,” Sutherland said. “And it would enable us to get more food into people’s hands and especially for the breakfast to open up more days so that at least they can come. Right now there’s three other days in the week that people can’t get breakfast. So we’re trying to fill in that void.”
Additionally, donations can help ANKORS provide to people impacted by substance use or by blood borne pathogens.
“Any money we ever get stays directly in our organization to go out to people in the communities, nowhere else. It stays local and it’s used in a variety of ways to get harm reduction messaging or do projects to help people.”
Giving grocery cards is another big way to help out. Sutherland has a program that is ending soon called Love Your Health, where people can come and learn about a health-related topic, and at the end get a $20 grocery card.
“My numbers have increased to like 25 people that come each month and my funding is only for 15 people,” Sutherland said. “And so I’ve exhausted my grocery cards two months earlier, because I want to keep it going through the winter and so that kind of thing would be just ideal.”
As the COVID-19 crisis is perpetually evolving, Sutherland said ANKORS needs to stay on top of updates in order to keep their staff and clients safe. For example, she said the organization is currently awaiting directives from the British Columbia Centre for Disease Control (BCCDC) regarding safe use of naloxone kits, which help save people from an opioid overdose. They are currently unsure if the masks in the kit protect against the virus.
“[BCCDC] can’t tell us for sure that that is safe and so that changes the game with giving a person breath if they’re overdosing,” explained Sutherland.
Another recent update that concerned Sutherland was the changes at the Cranbrook Emergency Shelter.
The emergency shelter, run by the Salvation Army in Cranbrook, will be changing to a different location under the management of BC Housing and Interior Health. Major Ginny Kristensen of the Salvation Army explained that they have been working with the two organizations to open a shelter in a different location, citing concerns of social distancing and the ability to keep staff and patrons safe. The Transition House, a women’s shelter in Cranbrook, will continue operations in the came location.
“ANKORS is different in that we respond the evolving need,” Sutherland said, adding she is currently working in the office alone. “All of a sudden it’s like, feeding these people is more important than anything right now. Giving them a condom’s great and all that stuff, but getting them some clothes, finding out about what shelter they can go to, so that’s where we’re upping our [protocols].”
More information on how ANKORS operates and how the services they provide can be found at https://ankors.bc.ca/