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City could make supervised injection site on Clarence Street permanent

The city's health board wants approval from the federal government to keep the interim supervised injection site in Lowertown open longer than originally planned and possibly make it permanent. 

In a report to be tabled at the board of health meeting next week, staff recommend the medical officer of health apply for an exemption from Health Canada to operate the site at 179 Clarence St. 

The interim site was set up in late September as a response to the growing opioid crisis, using an exemption already approved for the Sandy Hill Community Health Centre at 221 Nelson St. 

The temporary site opened just a few blocks away from an illegal supervised injection site run by the Overdose Prevention Ottawa group, which has seen regular visits from drug users over the last couple months.

Ottawa Public Health (OPH) had previously agreed to assess what to do with the interim site after 120 days of operation, but now staff are recommending the health department act sooner. 

Cheque day: When the opioid crisis crashes down on Ottawa's ByWard Market

One week last winter changed everything.

On the last day of February, a woman in her mid-40s was found dead of a drug overdose in her bed at Shepherds of Good Hope, a homeless shelter at the corner of Murray Street and King Edward Avenue.

Three days later, a woman in her 20s, a beloved member of the shelter community, was discovered showing no vital signs during an hourly bed check. She was given naloxone, CPR and rushed to hospital, but to no avail.

Until then, drug deaths at the shelter had been extremely rare. Two in a week had never happened before in the three decades that staff there have ministered to the city’s homeless in the ByWard Market.

Many workers were distraught. Frontline staff develop strong bonds to the damaged and vulnerable people who come to Shepherds as an island of safety in chaotic lives.

“That was really jarring for us,” said Caroline Cox, senior manager of transitional shelter services at Shepherds. “That really didn’t happen before. And then it happened twice in one week.”

Cox and her co-workers knew the deaths were not a tragic coincidence, but pointed toward a fundamental change in the city’s drug supply: the arrival of fentanyl. Staff feared that such overdose deaths would soon become the new normal.

“I can’t do this every week,” an assistant manager warned Cox.

Ten Years of Bad Policy Deepened Fentanyl Crisis, Says Senator

As the fentanyl epidemic spreads across Canada, a pioneer of supervised injection sites says the country would be better prepared to deal with the opioid crisis if it hadn’t suffered “10 years of darkness” under the Stephen Harper government.

Independent Senator Larry Campbell oversaw the establishment of Vancouver’s first public safe injection site, Insite, in 2003 after being elected mayor, building on the work of his predecessor, Philip Owen.

Almost 15 years later another 18 government-approved safe injection sites are operating across Canada. 

But they have all opened since 2015 as the fentanyl crisis brought record overdose deaths, particularly in British Columbia. Almost 2,000 people in the province have died of overdoses since January 2016, with 1,103 deaths so far this year. 

Campbell says the Conservatives aren’t to blame for the arrival of fentanyl, but the Harper government’s opposition to harm reduction measures hampered Canada’s ability to respond to the crisis.

“Certainly if they had been more progressive in their drug policy I think we could have dealt with it, and if we had supervised injections sites and if we’d have had opioid treatment, I think it would have made a difference,” he said. “But it's all hindsight.”

A space to shoot up, but no space for addiction treatment

Jonathan worries he may die before getting into an Ottawa treatment bed.

The 24-year-old has been going to the unauthorized supervised injection site since it opened this summer.

But for the last 10 days he's been coming to the Overdose Prevention Ottawa tents in Raphael Brunet Park looking for something more. He's been asking for help getting into treatment for his addiction.  

A volunteer at the tent, Matthew St. Jean, a recovering addict himself, has been calling the Ottawa Withdrawal Management Centre, to get Jonathan into one of 26 beds that serve the entire region from Pembroke to Cornwall.

The centre helps with withdrawal, and acts as one of the gateways into a longer-term program in a residential treatment facility.

St. Jean made a number of calls during an interview with CBC News, but each call went directly to voicemail.

St. Jean said he recently had success getting through for a user, only to find by the time the person got to the centre, the bed was gone.

"We're making the calls and making the calls," said St. Jean, who explained he's been trying to get Jonathan in for almost two weeks.

"He was good for the two weeks, but it's a slippery slope," he said. "You could end up using again. There's definitely not enough resources in Ottawa, at all."

Parents fill treatment gap with pilot project for drug-addicted youth

A group of Ottawa parents concerned about the rise in opioid overdoses in the city is filling what they see as a gap in the system for helping drug addicted youth. 

We the Parents is starting a substance and opioid use pilot program to help teens in the city's west end who have drug issues discuss problems and find peer support. But executive director Sean O'Leary, who founded the group to find help for his 17-year-old daughter Paige, says he's frustrated money has been made available for harm-reduction strategies such as supervised injection sites and not treatment programs. 

Without government funding, We the Parents will rely entirely on corporate and private donors and, as of Thursday, had raised just under half of its estimated $287,000 yearly operating budget. 

In a meeting held Thursday night, O'Leary said he approached the City of Ottawa and Ottawa Public Health for $150,000. He hoped the money could come from provincial money handed over to the City of Ottawa, earmarked for the creation of more detox and treatment spaces, as well as to equip police and firefighters with naloxone kits.

Supervised injection trailer arrives at Shepherds of Good Hope

Just before 11 a.m. on Thursday, John Sangster sat cross-legged on the pavement in a Lowertown parking lot with a needle filled with the opioid hydromorphone pressed into his arm.

A woman in a Porsche SUV pulled into the lot next to Saint Brigid’s Centre for the Arts looking for a spot as Sangster packed up a black plastic bag with syringes, a lighter and disposable wipes, got to his feet and walked back toward the Shepherds of Good Hope, one block away.

It’s a daily ritual for Sangster — finding a nook along a building or narrow space between two parked cars to get his next fix.

About two hours earlier at Shepherds, a truck delivered a construction trailer that could become Ottawa’s first 24/7 supervised injection site.

If the trailer receives Health Canada’s approval to operate as an injection site, Sangster plans to shoot his drugs in a safe, enclosed space under the supervision of health experts, instead of preparing a needle in the shadow of a deconsecrated church.

“It just makes you feel you’re not alone,” Sangster said. “It gives you a sense of normalcy.”

Shepherds isn’t waiting for Health Canada’s approval before preparing a supervised injection site at what one executive called the “ground zero” of Ottawa’s opioid crisis.

Deirdre Freiheit, president and CEO of Shepherds, said staff are “barely making it by the skin of our teeth” trying to keep clients safe, constantly scouring the block around the King Edward Avenue shelter for anyone who has overdosed.

Councillor Fleury meets with injection tent volunteers

Volunteers with Overdose Prevention Ottawa, the group running the unsanctioned supervised injection tent in Lowertown, met with Rideau-Vanier Coun. Mathieu Fleury on Tuesday morning in an attempt to clear the air.

After the meeting, Fleury told the Citizen his position hasn’t changed. He still wants the tent out of Raphael Brunet Park and relocated somewhere else.

Overdose Prevention Ottawa released a statement saying organizers hope the meeting will result in “a period of collaboration and cooperation.”

Fleury, who’s also a member of the board of health, has resisted visiting the tent as he tries to balance the concerns of neighbours with the health unit’s focus on harm reduction during an opioid crisis.

Ottawa Public Health has opened a temporary supervised injection service at its Clarence Street clinic, but Overdose Prevention Ottawa has indicated it will continue operating its tent.

James Hutt, a spokesman for Overdose Prevention Ottawa, said Fleury agreed to help the group find a new location.

“We’re not particularly attached to the park,” Hutt said, but he underscored the importance of staying in that part of the city.

“We’re looking to see where the need is most right now and right now it’s in Lowertown.”

More powerful drugs worry Ottawa overdose prevention workers

There is a change in the drug supply in Ottawa and it is beginning to scare those working to prevent overdoses, says an organizer with the pop-up supervised injection site set up in a Lowertown park.

“I am really worried by what I am seeing right now,” said Marilou Gagnon, associate professor of nursing at the University of Ottawa and an organizer of the site. “I am really scared as to what is going to happen to people on the streets.”

She said the numbers of atypical overdoses and other signs of a stronger drug supply confirm that there is a strong need for the pop-up site. Since the opening of a small Ottawa Public Health supervised injection site, there has been pressure on the pop-up site to close down. Organizers say they plan to remain until its services are no longer needed in the area.

“There are not enough people in this city right now to save lives when we see how powerful these drugs are right now.”

Ottawa Public Health referring drug users to unsanctioned safe injection site

The city's public health agency is promoting an unsanctioned supervised injection site in downtown Ottawa to drug users, despite city officials wanting the pop-up site shut down.

For close to two weeks, Ottawa Public Health (OPH) and the Sandy Hill Community Health Centre have been running a government-approved supervised drug injection site at an OPH clinic on Clarence Street in the ByWard Market.

Since the legal site has opened, there have been calls from the local city councillor, mayor and police chief for the illegal site to leave the park, though steps have yet to be taken by police or the city's bylaw department to enforce the request.

The OPH clinic is serving an average of about eight people a day in the five hours it's open, Andrew Hendricks, the agency's director of health protection, said Friday.

But two blocks away, a pop-up site at Raphael Brunet Park that's been opening three hours a night for more than a month serves an average of 35 people a night, according to Overdose Prevention Ottawa (OPO), the volunteer-run group behind it.

Overdose Prevention Ottawa says their site is still needed and they're not in competition with the Clarence Street clinic, rather they've been promoting that site to people who visit their tents regularly.

However, it seems to be a two-way street, as Hendricks says they're promoting the unsanctioned site at their clinic as well.

"We support the work they're doing, they're making a difference in terms of preventing overdoses and overdose deaths in the community," he said.

"They do bring some of their clients over here to access our services, they're promoting our services and we're promoting their services as well. In certain situations where there are some things we can't provide, such as supervision for safe inhalation, we'd refer them to Overdose Prevention Ottawa."

Pop-up overdose prevention sites are morally – and legally – legitimate

Despite the mounting toll of overdose-related deaths in Ontario, Ottawa’s mayor and certain city councillors are trying to close a “pop-up” overdose prevention site in Raphael Brunet Park. The site, staffed by concerned volunteers with Overdose Prevention Ottawa and funded via community donations, provides life-saving harm reduction services for people who use drugs. There have been more than 1,150 visits and no fatalities since it opened five weeks ago.

Various political “leaders” in Ottawa have criticized pop-up site organizers and been quick to presume the illegality of the site. The site operates without a federal ministerial exemption from the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act, which means that those using illegal drugs at the site can still be charged for possession when using a service that could mean the difference between life and death.

But it is this very absence of sanctioned services — where people can access health services without fear of prosecution — that has mobilized community volunteers where governments continue to dither. Even more shameful are politicians who oppose clearly authorized sites while criticizing community members who took the immediate initiative to save lives, even in the face of bureaucratic barriers.

Pop-up overdose prevention sites are an essential public health intervention. It is both legally and ethically misguided to suggest that these sites run afoul of the law.

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