Let down by Compass House

Rob McCaffery outside the Compass House emergency shelter and supportive housing complex, where his ex-wife died of a drug overdose in September.

It took a client’s drug-overdose death for a Penticton emergency shelter to change an important policy that could have prevented the fatality, says the victim’s ex-husband, who hopes other non-profit operators will now take note.

Rob McCaffery’s former partner checked into the Compass House emergency shelter on Main Street on Sept. 17, and left that same day in an ambulance after overdosing on a mixture of methamphetamine and fentanyl in a common-area washroom behind a locked door.

“The staff there gave her naloxone, they did resuscitate her,” said McCaffery. “They got her into the hospital, but she had suffered severe brain damage by that point and was taken off life support” on Sept. 21.

He hoped her stay at Compass House would have been “rock bottom,” the wake-up call she needed to get help and kick drugs. But he never imagined the mother of his two children would pass away while in the facility’s care. (The Herald has agreed not to name her out of consideration for the children, who still live in the community.)

McCaffery alleges frontline staff at Compass House had noted in a logbook their concerns about the washrooms being locked and unmonitored.

“So clients were able to go in and lock themselves in (and use drugs), and they could do that without any of the staff knowing,” explained McCaffery.

“The staff had logged in their communications binder … saying, ‘This is a problem, we need to do something about this,’ and it was basically ignored by the manager there…. Then this (overdose) happened and the next day, they changed the policy.”

Compass House manager Roger Evans confirmed the washroom-safety policy wasn’t in place prior to the Sept. 17 overdose.

“We didn’t think it was necessary,” said Evans, who did have such a policy in place at the shelter’s old location downtown on Nanaimo Avenue.

He noted, however, that Compass House boasts an overdose prevention site where residents can use drugs under supervision, so he’s unsure why the victim chose to use the washroom.

Compass House, which features a total of 24 shelter beds and 40 supportive housing units, opened earlier this year and is operated by the Penticton and District Society for Community Living.

PDSCL executive director Tony Laing refused to discuss McCaffery’s case, citing privacy issues, but said there had only been one notation in the logbook regarding concerns about the washrooms. He did, however, confirm there have been 15 overdoses, but just one fatality, at the facility since September.

McCaffery, who worries about the effects of those incidents on front-line staff, is also frustrated with the way PDSCL handled his complaints about management of Compass House. He said an email he wrote to the board regarding Laing was returned with a note from the board explaining Laing himself was best placed to deal with the complaint.

“I wanted to go above Tony and make them aware that your managers ignored the advice of the staff, and somebody died as a result of it,” said McCaffery.

Through the first eight months of the year, 12 people died of suspected drug overdoses in Penticton, according to the BC Coroners Service, putting the city on pace to beat the previous high of 16 recorded in 2018.