The DUDES Club is worried about attendance.
It used to be that every two weeks, a group of about 60 men squeezed into the Vancouver Native Health Society in the Downtown Eastside to chat and learn about their health.
But in the last six months, there’s been a noticeable dip in their numbers — down to 40 or 45 — according to DUDES Club facilitator Richard Teague.
He’s convinced fentanyl is to blame.
“There could be other reasons, but that’s the only one that seems logical — that some of them are dying off,” Teague said. “It’s a concern for us.”
Particularly because the work the DUDES Club does — bringing together men from a population ravaged by addiction, poverty and inadequate housing — empowers them to protect themselves with preventative-health knowledge.
Dr. Paul Gross, the club’s medical director, said every agency in the neighbourhood is caught up in the fentanyl crisis, and the club — whose name stands for Downtown Urban Knights Defending Equality and Solidarity — is no exception.
Gross, along with a street nurse from the B.C. Centre for Disease Control, provides guidance to the men as they lead their own discussions about their health. The clinicians help them get their facts straight as they draw knowledge from Western and aboriginal medicine, as well as their own life experiences.
Hot topics have always been aging, HIV and Hepatitis C, Teague said. With roughly two-thirds of the men identifying as aboriginal, they also talk about the traumas of colonialism — the “Sixties Scoop”, residential schools and the foster care system.
But the dynamic has recently changed, in part because of the fentanyl crisis, he said. The men want to talk about harm reduction and naloxone training.
Gross said the men know the DUDES Club is “a safe space, a space where all the stuff that happens on the street won’t happen (inside)” and where they can speak freely, without judgment.
This helps the club draw in men who are otherwise apprehensive about meetings, clinics, doctors and rules, said Sandy Lambert, the club’s elder and the external liaison.
“You cannot do what we’re doing from a textbook,” said Lambert, who has helped the club expand north into chapters in Smithers and Prince George, a city he said is experiencing similar pains because of fentanyl.
“It’s like an entry point for the healthcare system, for guys to feel that this is not as intimidating,” Gross said.
The DUDES Club relies on funding from St. Paul’s Foundation, which Gross said is “wholeheartedly” supportive of its upstream and organic approach to tackling health issues.
Some men swing by the club just for the food, while others need a couch where they can comfortably come down from a high. But no matter who they are, so long as they respect their peers, the club’s doors are open to all men every other Thursday.
“We’re trying to create a safe and supportive environment for any man that wants to come,” Teague said.