Parkdale overdose prevention site closed during province’s 9-week ‘pause’ on new overdose prevention sites

(By: Manuela Vega)

TOPS member Gillian Kolla at the overdose prevention site that was operating in Parkdale. (Globe and Mail/ Christopher Katsarov)

An unsanctioned overdose prevention site in Parkdale closed on Wednesday, the Toronto Overdose Prevention Society (TOPS) announced Tuesday, Oct. 9.

Volunteers working in Parkdale said that it would be too difficult to support people who use drugs in tents based on their experiences with the cold, rain and wind throughout the last few weeks at Dunn Avenue Parkette, as well as their experiences at the Moss Park overdose prevention site, which operated out of a tent for three months in 2017.

Three new overdose prevention sites — in Parkdale, Thunderbay, Ont., and St. Catharines, Ont. — had been approved by the former Liberal government to open in August. However, on Aug. 13, new Health Minister Christine Elliott said that the province would be putting a “pause” on opening these three sites to review how effective supervised injection and overdose prevention sites are and “whether people can get into rehabilitation after.”

On Oct. 1, TOPS made a press release stating that “in response to the inaction and instability provoked by the government,” they would hold a vigil at Queen’s Park that same day, displaying 1,265 crosses for each person who died of an overdose in Ontario in 2017.

Volunteers work in tents at the Parkdale overdose prevention site. (Toronto Star/ Rick Madonik)

“We are not taking this decision lightly, but the changing weather and most importantly, the unwillingness of the current government to work with community members trying to save lives calls for different strategies,” said Steph Massey, a volunteer with TOPS, in a press release. “We had hoped to have a resolution to this issue by this point, but given the nine-week ongoing refusal of the current provincial government to recognize this urgent need, we are left with no choice but to close the tents.”

The Toronto Overdose Prevention Society estimated that as of Tuesday, nine weeks after the province announced that new sites would not be operating, 189 people had died of an overdose. They calculated this by assuming that the rate of deaths by overdose cited by Toronto Public Health in January-March had remained steady, although overdose deaths continue to rise.

The response to the opioid crisis

On Aug. 14, police released a public safety alert saying that there had been seven deaths from overdose in the last 12 days in Parkdale. The Toronto Overdose Prevention Society opened the unsanctioned site six days later.

Third-year social work student Alannah Fricker started the Ryerson chapter of the Canadian Students for Sensible Drug Policy at the beginning of the spring semester in 2017. The national organization aims to educate students and faculty, promote harm reduction and change drug policy that affects communities across Canada, explained Fricker.  

“Having overdose prevention sites and [supervised injection sites] is essentially a way to keep people alive long enough so that they can get into treatment if they want, when they’re ready,” said Fricker. “They’re a very important first step in the continuum of care.”

Supervised injection and overdose prevention sites provide people with supervision by trained staff to prevent and reverse overdoses. They also educate people on overdose prevention, provide clean supplies to avoid the spread of HIV or hepatitis C and connect people with health professionals and social services like counselling and referrals for housing and drug treatment, according to Toronto Public Health.

“It really provides a safe space where some of the most marginalized people can come in and feel not judged, feel safe and supported and when they’re ready to access services, they’re available,” said Fricker. “People who, for example, don’t have a health card or are homeless and have mental health challenges, they often feel really comfortable using those services.”

The role of housing

Although these facilities focus on the safe consumption of drugs, they also cater largely to people who do not have housing.

“When people are in the streets, there’s legitimate reasons why they actually use drugs, for example to stay awake all night, to protect their belongings, to deal with trauma,” said Fricker. “People who are living on the street get harassed, assaulted, beat up, raped, all kinds of stuff. [They are] robbed constantly.”

Between Oct. 5 and Oct. 8, shelters in Toronto operated at an average 92% occupancy rate, according to the City of Toronto’s daily shelter census. The average number of people using emergency shelters monthly in Toronto in September of this year was 6,746, up about 32.5 per cent  from 2017 when that average number was 5,092.

“A larger part is the housing crisis issue [because] when people don’t have housing, then they’re in the street,” said Fricker. “They don’t want to have the drugs on them, so it encourages people to use in hidden places, and use larger amounts more quickly.”

“It seems counterintuitive letting someone come in and inject in front of you, right?” said Fricker. “But the evidence shows that it really does support individual and community health.”

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