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.

Ottawa's supervised injection site will have high-tech drug analyzing device

Ottawa’s first supervised injection site is now slated to have a high-tech device that can almost instantly analyze street drugs to stop overdoses before they happen and flag dangerous new drugs as they land on city streets.

It would be a first in Canada.

Lynne Leonard, a University of Ottawa epidemiologist, announced Thursday that her team has secured funding from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research to put a mass spectrometer at the site set to open this fall at the Sandy Hill Community Health Centre.

Pop-up injection site organizers say they'll keep on going

Mayor Jim Watson is more concerned about votes and public reaction than drug-use management in his criticism of a pop-up supervised injection site in a Lowertown park, says one of the site’s organizers.

“Well, he’s a politician; what can I say?” said Rick Sproule, who’s with Overdose Prevention Ottawa.

“He’s concerned about votes, that’s what he’s concerned about. He’s not a health-care professional, he has no expertise in the field whatsoever.”

On Tuesday, Watson said that injection-site organizers, while well intentioned, weren’t being fair to the community and had “taken over” the park.

Watson wouldn’t say if the city would close down the site, open since Friday afternoon in Raphael Brunet Park, at the intersection of St. Patrick and Cumberland streets.

As of Tuesday night, it has been used 88 times, according to organizers, who said there have been no overdoses so far.

50 visited pop-up drug use tent in 3 days

One of the organizers behind an unsanctioned pop-up drug use site in Ottawa says their first three days of operation have been successful.

In total, 50 people accessed the tent in Raphael Brunet Park at St. Patrick and Cumberland streets on Friday, Saturday and Sunday, nurse Marilou Gagnon told CBC Radio's Ottawa Morning Monday.

Of those 50 clients, one of them could potentially have overdosed if he wasn't being actively monitored, Gagnon said.

"We're all very sleep deprived and we've all given our best for this to happen in a very short time, and I feel this morning I woke up with a sense of pride that I've never experienced in my life," Gagnon said.

How activists across Canada are subverting the law to establish safe spaces for people to use drugs

In Vancouver, Toronto, Ottawa, and other cities soon, harm-reduction advocates are meeting the fentanyl crisis with a coordinated response

The weekend of July 28, Zoë Dodd was enjoying a rare vacation in Montreal when news reached her that there was a wave of overdoses sweeping through her hometown of Toronto.

A harm-reduction advocate who coordinates a hepatitis C program for drug users, Dodd cut her trip short and caught the next bus back to work.

“Toronto police issue warning after 7 overdoses, 2 fatal; fentanyl suspected,” reads a headline from that Friday (July 28).

“We felt frightened,” Dodd said in a telephone interview. “We knew those sorts of spikes were happening because we were already losing people. We were having memorial after memorial for coworkers and friends that had died. So that spike wasn’t anything new for us. But that was the first time that the police had ever released anything about a spike in the city.”

The bad batch of drugs continued to make its way through Toronto for the next several days. Dodd said the worst of that weekend still hasn’t been reported. “We knew of 12 deaths by the time the weekend was over and into the following days,” she explained. “And those were people that we knew.”

Pop-up drug use site set up in Raphael Brunet Park

Overdose Prevention Ottawa is continuing to operate a supervised drug-use tent at Raphael Brunet Park in Lowertown, despite receiving a complaint that it's breaching city bylaws.

The group says it's setting up the tent across from 310 St. Patrick St. for people to use drugs under supervision so they can better access healthcare.

The unsanctioned "overdose prevention site" follows the lead of similar initiatives in Toronto and Vancouver.

The group, made up of people with experience caring for and supporting drug users, said public health officials recommend not using drugs alone in case of an overdose — especially with very powerful opioids being discretely added to some illicit drugs — so they're offering a supervised space.

Pop-up injection site breaks law for a good cause

The push for legal harm reduction requires breaking the law.

That was the chatter Friday down at the pop-up safe-injection site in Lowertown.

And it’s true.

With the big black tent in the background of Raphael Brunet Park, volunteers prepared for what they expected to be a busy evening. Boxes of fruit snacks and flats of Costco water sat nearby. Some people moseyed through, grabbing a doughnut and cup of coffee and asking what was going on.

Things that are illegal don’t tend to become legal until people realize the consequences aren’t as grave as they fear. More to the point, perhaps, with something like harm reduction and drug use, things don’t tend to become legal until everyone realizes that it was criminality in the first place that made an activity dangerous.

Take overdoses. They’re pretty manageable, in the scheme of things, if you overdose somewhere you can get help.

This is less the case when someone’s shooting up alone in an apartment because they’re embarrassed to do so with friends or don’t want to get caught by the cops.

But with support workers nearby, and a supply of naloxone — which helps arrest an opioid overdose — using drugs becomes a lot less dangerous. That’s the whole logic behind giving out naloxone, free of charge, at pharmacies around town. With more and more powerful drugs, such as fentanyl, on the market, keeping people alive requires some pretty bold solutions.

After all — and it’s by now become a devastating cliché — you can’t help people who are dead.

This particular solution is not necessarily palatable, mind you, to the folks staring out of their condos from across the street, but, to be honest, “tough luck” is the only real response.

Lives are worth more than your queasiness.


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