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City leaders showing little will to move in on illegal injection tent

Ottawa's mayor, police chief and the city councillor for Rideau-Vanier all say they want the illegal supervised drug injection site operating out of tents in a Lowertown park shut down — but none of them seems to want to take responsibility for making that happen.

Now that a city-run supervised injection site is operating out of an Ottawa Public Health clinic on Clarence Street, Mayor Jim Watson wants the tent site, which is run by volunteers with Overdose Prevention Ottawa, to fold.

"The reality is that we have a legitimate, federally approved, provincially funded, city-operated facility that is safe, that is secure, that is clean, that is run by health professionals, and it's in an appropriate location," Watson told reporters after Wednesday's council meeting.

Safe injection sites have come to Ottawa despite politicians, not because of them

At the start of 2016, it seemed doubtful Ottawa would ever get a supervised drug injection site.

Mayor Jim Watson adamantly opposed the idea. Police Chief Charles Bordeleau had never been on board, citing public safety concerns. Coun. Shad Qadri, who chairs Ottawa's board of health, was no fan either.

Now the city's on the verge of having three injection sites, maybe four.

At 3 p.m. Tuesday, Ottawa's first sanctioned consumption site will open its doors. Next month a more permanent site is set to open at the Sandy Hill Community Health Centre.

Somerset West Community Health Centre and Ottawa Inner City Health, located at the Shepherds of Good Hope, have applied for federal exemptions to open supervised injection sites. Meanwhile Overdose Prevention Ottawa is already operating an illegal yet well-attended tent offering a similar service to drug users, and appears to have little intention of decamping.

It's a dramatic shift in public health policy that happened without — or maybe in spite of — political leadership.

Supervised injection sites offer hope, not just drugs

I can’t believe there is resistance to providing safe injection sites.

I think people have forgotten – or perhaps never considered – that addicts are people. Someone’s daughter, son, brother, sister, cousin, mother, father. Someone who once had hopes and dreams for themselves. Hopes and dreams that got lost in the morass of dependency on drugs. Someone for whom many other people had great hopes and dreams as well. Our job as citizens is to try to ensure that they live to fulfil their dreams.

Individuals who habitually use drugs are not throwaway people. They are real people caught up in the horror of addiction. All along, they have suffered accidental deaths from overdoses. But these days, drug addiction carries with it the real and present danger of dying due to an overdose of unknown quantities of the potent drug, fentanyl, laced into other drugs of choice, or even straight fentanyl.

Ottawa's first legal supervised injection site to open amid growing crisis

After years of debate and planning, Ottawa’s first legal supervised injection site prepared to open its doors on in the ByWard Market on Tuesday amid a growing opioid crisis.

Even before the interim site run by Ottawa Public Health saw its first client, though, concerns were being raised that its services would be inadequate to meet the need.

The supervised injection site, which is meant to fill the gap until a permanent site opens in Sandy Hill later this fall, was hurriedly opened by Ottawa Public Health in response to escalating numbers of overdoses in the city in recent months, in part, due to the introduction of fentanyl into the drug supply.

The interim site is also a response to a pop-up site opened — without legal exemption — in August in a Lowertown park. That site, run by the volunteer group Overdose Prevention Ottawa, has had more than 1,000 visits since it opened on Aug. 25.

In a statement Monday, OPO called the Clarence Street site “a step in the right direction” but said it would continue to offer services at 307 Patrick St. from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m.

“In the midst of (Tuesday)’s opening of Ottawa Public Health’s interim Clarence Street supervised injection site, and after taking lengthy consideration of what our guests have told us, it is clear that our work is not over.”

Interim supervised injection site to open Tuesday

The precursor to Ottawa's first permanent supervised safe injection site will open its doors to clients on Tuesday, Sept. 26. But it's not clear the nearby tent offering support to drug users will shut down.

The interim supervised drug injection site will be located at the Ottawa Public Health office on Clarence Street. For years, many in the medical community have pressed for a drug consumption site, citing growing rates of drug overdoses in the city.

The interim site on Clarence Street will be open 7 days a week, from 3 p.m. to 8 p.m.

A pop-up overdose prevention site in Lowertown's Raphael Brunet Park has been operating since Aug. 25. The site offers space for people to use drugs under supervision and is staffed by volunteers with healthcare experience and experts in working with people who use drugs.

More than 900 people have visited the tent.

The pop-up site has faced growing opposition from neighbours unhappy with its location near their homes.

The site was not sanctioned by Health Canada and volunteers acknowledged the risk that it could be shut down. But they said the need for an injection site was urgent and could not wait for government approval.

Overdose rates are continuing to rise in Ottawa

The overdose crisis is hitting Ottawa just as hard as the rest of the province.

Newly released data from the province shows that emergency room visits for suspected opioid overdoses in Ottawa between January and February rose 36.5 per cent in 2017 compared to the previous year.

The numbers track closely to overall provincial numbers, which reflect an increase slightly north of 37 per cent during that period.

According to provincial data, 71 people were brought to the emergency room with confirmed opioid-related overdoses in three months, compared to 52 the previous year.

‘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.

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