EDMONTON — A woman winces as a volunteer crouches down, lifts up her dress and looks at a deep gash running along her right leg.
“You need to go to the hospital right now,” Angie Staines says, as the woman slumps against a wall in an alley on thenorthern edge of Edmonton’s downtown.
“That is very severely infected.”
It’s one hour into an evening shift for Staines and two other members of a harm reduction outreach team that distributes safe drugsupplies and offers help to the city’s homeless. They take a man, who was passed out on a muddy road, to a homeless shelter.
Staines, Alyssa Miller and Dave McLennan, the core members of Boots on Ground, also walk down two alleys behind Roger’s Place, the home of the Edmonton Oilers hockey team.
They ask a row of people sitting on potholes, cardboard, concrete and grass if they need harm reduction supplies. They look for signs someone might beexperiencing an opioid overdose.
Staines says the trio has been reversing multiple overdoses every week.
“With all that’s going on with the poisoned supply … it’s really about just keeping these people alive right now,” Staines says, explaining that more powerful and tainted opioids are killing more people.
“That’s what we’re fighting for.”
The three began volunteering with Boots on Ground during the COVID-19 pandemic, pulling three to five shifts a week, after theirregular jobs.
Staines is a full-time nursing student, Miller an education consultant and coach, and McLennan a tattoo artist.
They wander with heavy bags on their backs. Inside are dozens of needles, tin foil, straight shooter pipes and naloxone kits.They also hand out water bottles, cigarettes, snacks, condoms and sometimes socks, underwear and informational booklets. Some items are donated, others they pay for themselves.
Miller, who is the group’s executive director, says she has never seen the overdose crisis this bad.
“The amount of overdoses that everybody is responding to and the wait-list for services is overwhelming an already overwhelmed system,” she says.
In first five months of 2020, Alberta’s government reported 442 deaths in the province due to drug poisoning. In 2021, that number jumped to 624 deaths in the first five months.
Staines adds that, more than the numbers, a quick walk through Edmonton’s downtown shows just how dire the situation has gotten.
“Some nights you can come out here and you can see they’re walking around like zombies.”
The drug poisoning crisis weighs heavily on her mind, she says, because her son is an addict who is currently on the streets. She sees him sometimes.