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‘All the rest is just noise’: compassion remains focus at pop-up injection site

On average, the pop-up overdose prevention site in Raphael Brunet Park has one person use their service every six minutes. Over 26 days, the site has seen more than 800 visitors.

The numbers, on their own, are impressive — enough to push the city to recognize the need for supervised injection sites — but are only half the story. Beyond stats, beyond fights with politicians, beyond spats with neighbourhood organizations, there is one guiding principle for the volunteers at Overdose Prevention Ottawa: what goes on in the tent is not just about reversing overdoses—it’s mostly about caring for people who are, often, understood by the public only by the drugs they use. People who are forgotten and pathologized more often than they are genuinely cared for.

Marilou Gagnon, a nursing professor at the University of Ottawa who was instrumental in organizing OPO, talks less about the quantifiable successes of the site, and more about the people she’s met through volunteering there.

“There was this young guest who was saying how it was his birthday. He always calls his family, but someone stole his phone, and Bobby [Jamison] gave him his phone,” says Gagnon, half-joking that she has to stop herself from crying. “He ended up talking to his family for an hour and a half, long distance. That guy, that day, he talked to his family because of our site.

“People like to put us in a box and say we’re so bad. But what we do is basically connect at a human level,” she says.

Opioid overdoses keep rising — but Ottawa finally gets moving on the crisis

Emergency-room visits for opioid overdoses increased 76 per cent in a year, according to new figures the Ontario government released Tuesday.

The figures compare the first half of 2016 to the first half of 2017. The number of trips to hospital for overdoses from drugs like heroin, morphine and fentanyl increased from 1,078 to 1,898, the government says.

Our numbers are a bit less alarming than the provincewide trend but still headed the wrong way. In the first half of 2016, local hospitals saw 109 opioid-overdose cases. In the first half of 2017, they saw 157.

Over a year ago, with the crisis brewing and knowing worse was to come, Ottawa’s board of health voted 9-2 in favour of the general idea of helping someone else open a supervised drug-injection site, a place where addicts shooting drugs like heroin can be treated by nurses if they accidentally overdose.

The Sandy Hill Community Health Centre is due to open a fuller site around the end of October, working as quickly as it can to get all the approvals and money it needs, but in the meantime the body count is growing.

So far, the only such site in Ottawa is a tent in Lowertown, staffed part-time by volunteers, whose rough disregard for bureaucratic niceties changed the discussion from “Can we do this?” to “We’re doing this — are you going to stop us?”

Ottawa Board of Health backs interim injection site

The Ottawa Public Health board supported two motions Monday night in support of supervised injection services in Lowertown and Centretown.

The first motion — to create an interim supervised injection site at the public health clinic at 179 Clarence St. — was a last-minute addition to the agenda supported by the city's chief medical officer of health, Dr. Isra Levy.

The second — a motion from Coun. Catherine McKenney introduced during the meeting — called for Ottawa Public Health (OPH) to advocate on behalf of the Somerset West Community Health Centre's application for a permanent supervised injection site.

Ottawa Public Health is working with the Sandy Hill Community Health Centre to allow the city's Clarence Street clinic to operate as an interim site using the exemption Sandy Hill received from Health Canada.

Levy said the work of volunteers at Overdose Prevention Ottawa impressed upon him the need for a supervised injection service.

"The kinds of numbers that they were reporting they were seeing — really, several people every night in just three hours — did confirm what we suspected," Levy said. "Services like that would really have an impact and could be expected to make a difference."

Volunteers from Overdose Prevention Ottawa, which operates an unsanctioned site in Raphael Brunet Park, said they had 765 visits in 24 days. The site is open three hours a day.

Vending machines with clean pipes, needles for drug users open in Ottawa

Community health centres across the city are going ahead with a pilot project that will stock vending machines with free access to sterile needles and crack pipes.

It's part of a harm-reduction strategy in partnership with Ottawa Public Health to stem the rise of drug-related infections.

The new machines are located at OPH's needle exchange program on Clarence Street and the Sandy Hill, Somerset West, and Carlington community health centres.

Drug users are first given a token through the needle exchange or safe inhalation programs run by OPH. Using the token, the user can access one of two kits from the vending machines.

The first one is a safe injection kit, which contains three clean syringes, a strip of cookers, alcohol swabs, and a tie.

The second kit is a safe inhalation kit, which contains stems for smoking crack, a screen, a push stick, and a mouth piece to limit the spread of disease.

"My philosophy is that everybody matters and everybody should have access to health and safety and be able to access safe supplies," said Naini Cloutier, executive director of Somerset West Community Health Centre.

Health Minister has no updates on supervised injection site

Health Minister Ginette Petitpas Taylor had no updates Thursday on two proposed supervised injection site in Ottawa.

The city is pushing to open an interim site to deal with rising numbers of opioid overdoses. Mayor Jim Watson has expressed also hope the proposed site could lead to the closure of an unsanctioned pop-up site in a Lowertown Park.

Petitpas Taylor toured the Shepherds of Good Hope facility in Lowerton on Thursday as new numbers came out showing the crisis is getting worse in Canada.

The facility operates treatment and addiction program and has also applied to operate a supervised injection site. Petitpas Taylor could only say that application is under review.

“We received an application and our department officials are certainly working through the process,” she said.

Catherine Hacksel, a worker at the facility and a volunteer with the pop-up injection site questioned the minister on why the process was taking so long.

“Folks here are responding to overdoses in bathrooms and dorms and having to check basically because clients can’t disclose when they’re using,” she said. “I am just wondering exactly what you’re waiting for?”

Harm reduction workers take mayor to task

Overdose Prevention Ottawa, the organizers behind the pop-up supervised injection site in Lowertown have accused Mayor Jim Watson of behaving “recklessly with his own residents’ lives.”

The group issued a statement on Wednesday that celebrated the successes they have had over twenty days of operation. That statement also took the mayor to task for what they are calling a dangerous level of inaction.

“Mayor Jim Watson continues to spread misinformation and ignore expert knowledge on the matter,” wrote the group. “Out of the 25 overdose prevention sites in Canada, no other civic leader, entrusted with the safety and duty of care for citizens, has behaved as recklessly with his own residents’ lives as Mayor Watson.”

Friends and saviours: Peer program targets overdose among Ottawa's homeless

A unique program in downtown Ottawa is bringing safe injection paraphernalia directly to the drug users living on the streets, help that's hand-delivered by their friends and peers.

Ottawa Inner City Health, a non-profit organization aimed at improving access to health care for the chronically homeless, set up the peer overdose prevention team in May when drug overdoses started to spike in the downtown core.

"We use our peer workers to patrol the hotspot areas around downtown to check for people who are overdosing, and to hand out equipment that people might need," said Anne Marie Hopkins of Ottawa Inner City Health.

That equipment includes naloxone kits, pipes, water and clean needles — the essential tools of the harm reduction trade.

What's unique about this program is the people who are being paid to hand out the gear  — recovering addicts and people who used to live on the streets.

Ottawa's health unit rushes to open its own supervised injection site

With opioid overdoses rising, Ottawa Public Health is scrambling to open its own supervised injection site in the ByWard Market, just weeks after a pop-up tent opened nearby in Lowertown.

Health officer Dr. Isra Levy said Tuesday that the opioid crisis has created an urgent need in the city to expand existing harm reduction services, including supervised injection sites.

“It is my intent to begin to offer these services as soon as we can responsibly do so, and we are aiming to achieve that within the next two weeks,” Levy told the board of health in a memo. Levy said he believes he has the authority to do it without direct approval from the board, but he’ll ask for a vote on his plan at the next health-board meeting on Monday.

The site would be in a health-unit building at 179 Clarence St. in the ByWard Market, but would be operated by the Sandy Hill Community Health Centre. That clinic, at Rideau and Nelson streets, is planning to open a permanent supervised injection site and has federal approval for it, but it won’t be ready to go until the end of October. And, Levy wrote, drug users are in danger now.

“To date in 2017, we are seeing an average of nearly 120 emergency room visits for suspected opioid overdose each month in Ottawa, compared with fewer than 100 per month in 2016,” his memo said.

500 people have used pop-up safer injection site

 City officials will hold a meeting today to discuss the pop-up supervised injection site in a Lowertown Park.

Councillor Mathieu Fleury says officials have held several meetings, adding he is “confident” a solution is imminent.

Overdose Prevention Ottawa opened a supervised injection site in a tent at Raphael Brunet Park on St. Patrick Street just over two weeks ago.

Organizer Marilou Gagnon tweeted Monday morning "TO opened an interim supervised injection site days after the overdose prevention site opened. It's day 18 in Ottawa and still nothing."  Overdose Prevention Ottawa is calling on the city to open an interim supervised injection site in Ottawa.

Organizers say a record 66 people used the site on Sunday, and two overdoses were prevented.  Since the pop-up supervised injection site opened, more than 500 people have used the site to inject drugs.

It's an overdose crisis, help or get out of the way

What’s a few lives lost in service of protecting bureaucracy? Surely, a little moral grandstanding is worth more than the health and safety of some of our most vulnerable neighbours.

This is, basically, what we’re being told by those opposing a pop-up Supervised Injection Site at Raphael Brunet Park.

Facing an opioid crisis that saw 135 overdoses in June alone, Overdose Prevention Ottawa launched the pop-up site … because someone needed to do something.

Both the city and the province have been slow to act on this issue. People in Ottawa have been pushing for a Secure Injection Site for years. We have approval for one in Sandy Hill, but we have to wait for the bureaucracy to catch up to the crisis.

It doesn’t matter, apparently, that people will die. The bureaucracy must be allowed to churn along at its own glacial pace.

It’s ridiculous. We know that Supervised Injection Sites work. Insite has been running for almost 15 years, improving health outcomes and reducing overdoses in Vancouver.

It was just over three years ago that Simon Fraser University came out with a study demonstrating that an SIS would be a net financial benefit to the city, in addition to the beneficial health impact. A 2013 study out of the University of Pittsburgh demonstrated that SISs had either no effect on the crime rate or actually reduced it.

This is a public policy unicorn — it saves lives, can reduce crime and benefits us fiscally.

And yet still, we wait.

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