By Alexandra B. Collins, Jade Boyd, Samara Mayer, Al Fowler, Mary Clare Kennedy, Ricky N. Blutenthal, Thomas Kerr, Ryan McNeil 


North America is in the midst of an overdose crisis. In some of the hardest hit areas of Canada, local responses have included the implementation of low-threshold drug consumption facilities, termed Overdose Prevention Sites (OPS). In Vancouver, Canada the crisis and response occur in an urban terrain that is simultaneously impacted by a housing crisis in which formerly ‘undesirable’ areas are rapidly gentrifying, leading to demands to more closely police areas at the epicenter of the overdose crisis.

We examined the intersection of street-level policing and gentrification and how these practices re/made space in and around OPS in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside neighborhood. Between December 2016 and October 2017, qualitative interviews were conducted with 72 people who use drugs (PWUD) and over 200 h of ethnographic fieldwork were undertaken at OPS and surrounding areas. Data were analyzed thematically and interpreted by drawing on structural vulnerability and elements of social geography.

While OPS were established within existing social-spatial practices of PWUD, gentrification strategies and associated police tactics created barriers to OPS services. Participants highlighted how fear of arrest and police engagement necessitated responding to overdoses alone, rather than engaging emergency services. Routine policing near OPS and the enforcement of area restrictions and warrant searches, often deterred participants from accessing particular sites. Further documented was an increase in the number of police present in the neighborhood the week of, and the week proceeding, the disbursement of income assistance cheques.

Our findings demonstrate how some law enforcement practices, driven in part by ongoing gentrification efforts and buttressed by multiple forms of criminalization present in the lives of PWUD, limited access to needed overdose-related services. Moving away from place-based policing practices, including those driven by gentrification, will be necessary so as to not undermine the effectiveness of life-saving public health interventions amid an overdose crisis.