Project Angel Gives Hope in Overdose Emergency

November 22, 2019. Article by: Government of BC

An innovative partnership in Abbotsford is showing that when different parts of a community work together, bridges can be built, hearts can be opened, and lives can be saved.

Project Angel connects people experiencing substance use and mental health challenges, homelessness, and related issues in Abbotsford with important supports and services. Co-created and led by Abbotsford Police Department and people with lived experience of substance use, it also gives first responders better options to help people in the community experiencing these challenges.

Project Angel is based on a referral system. After someone is referred to Project Angel, they are matched with a peer support worker who works with them to provide whatever support they may need – whether it’s conversation over coffee, naloxone training or connections to treatment programs.

Anyone can refer someone experiencing substance use challenges to Project Angel. Maybe a first responder gives someone who recently experienced an overdose a Project Angel business card; a peer support worker encourages someone they know in the community who needs help to reach out – or someone experiencing substance use challenges decides to reach out on their own.

Wherever the referral comes from, Project Angel’s simple but effective approach has helped the team accomplish great things very quickly.

The team – made up of a peer support coordinator, a police liaison officer, and a diverse group of peer support workers – works closely with service providers in the community, like Fraser Health’s substance use care unit. This helps it connect Project Angel clients with the support they need, fast.

Since launching in November 2018, the team has helped more than 60 people resolve substance use, housing, or related health and social challenges. It has supported hundreds more through outreach, engagement and relationship-building activities.

Constable Ian MacDonald, police liaison officer and one half of the partnership behind Project Angel, believes its success is based on people with lived experience of substance use and first responders coming together to solve a common problem.

“There was no blueprint on how to do that, but it has produced amazing results,” says Ian, highlighting the police department’s enthusiasm for the project. “About half of all Project Angel referrals come from police officers.”

Working with peer support workers allows first responders to connect people experiencing substance use challenges with people that have the knowledge and lived experience to really help them. It’s been a game changer for the clients, peer support workers, and us. 

The enthusiasm at Abbotsford PD is also reflected in the broader community. 

“This is the first major peer initiative in Abbotsford and the response to it has been really strong,” says Kiah Ashley, Project Angel’s peer support coordinator, and Ian’s partner in running the program.

“A lot of different community organizations and agencies have reached out about partnering with us. The local food bank, a church and our community hub are all helping to provide outreach services.”

It’s great to have the community going all-hands-on-deck as we address the overdose crisis.

Ian believes the program has had another important, if unplanned, impact – reducing stigma.

“I think we’re changing how the community understands substance use challenges,” he says.

"Kiah and I recently did a community presentation on Project Angel. After the talk, a woman in the crowd stood up and said she was so happy about the work we were doing. It turned out her son had been homeless and going through substance use challenges. Not a lot of people knew about it.

“Talking about Project Angel made her feel more comfortable describing his story. It really helped the audience understand that these issues can affect anyone.”

That’s a triumphant example of reducing stigma.

Project Angel was one of 18 community-based partnerships in B.C. funded by 2018 Community Wellness and Harm Reduction grants, which aim to support local solutions to the overdose emergency. Learn more.

Learn more about peer support and harm reduction