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Lifeline Connections van equipped to take people to sobering unit in Vancouver

Cindy Malone had a song stuck in her head as she clocked out of her job in admissions at Lifeline Connections and clocked in to her role driving the Sobering Urgent Response Vehicle around Vancouver.

“This little light of mine, I’m going to let it shine,” she murmured.

While nursing the earworm, Malone and her coworker Tiffany Kostrba let a reporter shadow them on a cold December evening as they drove across the city in a passenger van seeking homeless people in need.

Kostrba, a sobering unit counselor, said the van “is a beautiful thing.”

It was packed with supplies including wound care kits, bottled water, blankets, coats, hats, scarves, condoms, hand warmers, hygiene kits, lip balm and Naloxone, which is used to treat narcotic overdose. Lifeline Connections is a substance use and mental health treatment center, and the van — a 15-passenger cargo van with most of its seats removed — is equipped to take people to the sobering unit if they’re interested in sobering up for the night.

“This is kind of the beginning,” Malone said.

After handing out supplies and talking with people outside, many interactions end with the question: Have you heard of the sobering unit?

It opened January 2015 at the Center for Community Health. Located at 1601 E. Fourth Plain Blvd. on the south side of the building, it offers people 12-hour stays where they can sleep, shower, do laundry, have dinner and breakfast.

“Especially when it’s cold out, that’s pretty intriguing,” Malone said.

While at the 24 Hour Food Mart at Fourth Plain and Grand boulevards, Malone and Kostrba gave supplies to a large group of people and business cards to a man who was interested in learning more about Lifeline Connections. In a perfect world, those who have visited the sobering unit get assessed and get into detox and then residential treatment.

When the SURV first hit the streets in spring 2017, staff worked with hospitals and law enforcement to transport intoxicated people to the sobering unit, a cheaper alternative to a hospital stay. The van took a long hiatus because there weren’t enough Lifeline employees to staff it. (Two employees are required, which influences how frequently it’s on the road.) When it returned this summer, a bigger focus was placed on outreach and harm reduction, though the staff still occasionally bring people to the sobering unit. Lifeline aims to increase staffing for the van.

Typically, the SURV visits parks and places along Fourth Plain Boulevard such as the Vancouver Navigation Center.

It can take several contacts to convince someone to go to the sobering unit. By going out night after night in the SURV, people become family with Lifeline’s staff.

“They really start to see that people actually care,” Kostrba said.

Kostrba and Malone both know where their clients are coming from. Kostrba is celebrating 14 years of sobriety; Malone is seven years sober.

“I just love doing this,” said Malone, who also volunteers feeding homeless people on the weekends, “probably because I was out here for a minute myself.”

Kostrba said the vast majority of those who come to the sobering unit are homeless and most have mental health issues that make it hard for them to be in regular housing situations. That makes the sobering unit an ideal place for people looking to get inside without having to be sober beforehand. Most people walk to the sobering unit.

She asks clients in the sobering unit what they need when they’re outside. One thing on her wish list is small bottles of foot powder to help treat trench foot, a condition caused when feet are wet and cold for too long.

Around this time of year, hand warmers and blankets are among the most popular items. During the recent ride-along, the van wasn’t stocked with gloves, which many people requested, including a boy who was outside St. Andrew Lutheran Church with his mom waiting for its winter shelter to open for the night.

Malone pretended to search the van, took off her own gloves and handed them to the boy. It’s typical that by the end of the evening, the van runs out of supplies. Some things are bought and others are donated. What’s in stock changes with the seasons, too; in the summer, the van has ice water and sunscreen.

Just before leaving St. Andrew, Malone and Kostrba spotted a woman who lived at a camp that disbanded a while back. They hadn’t known where she was or how she was doing or if she was even alive. Now, they can begin rebuilding a relationship with her. Maybe she’ll visit the sobering unit.

“I’m so happy right now,” Malone said. “I’m so glad that’s she’s OK.”

As she drove out of the parking lot and onto Vancouver’s dark roads, she began singing that familiar refrain: “This little light of mine, I’m going to let it shine.”


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