Close the pop-up injection tent and you'll have blood on your hands, advocates warn

For over a year, Rideau-Vanier Coun. Mathieu Fleury has been one of city council’s most vocal backers of a supervised drug-injection site to save Ottawa drug users from overdoses. Friday, protesters crowded outside Fleury’s city hall office, calling him everything but a killer.

About 100 supporters of Overdose Prevention Ottawa and its “pop-up” tent in a Lowertown park chanted “Shame!” and demanded he “man up!” and face them.

They were — they are — angry over his wish that they take their tent down now that Ottawa’s health unit has opened its own small injection site in a city building two blocks away.

Fleury, they said, will have blood on his hands if the city makes them stop putting up their tent in Raphael Brunet Park every afternoon, as they have for the past month. And he is repulsive for saying nearby residents feel “hostage” to the unsanctioned injection site, operating on city property without approval.

They’d rallied outside city hall, shared stories of the 1,100 visitors they’ve monitored using drugs, the three overdoses they say they’ve reversed. They’d talked about the hundreds of drug users across Canada who’ve died as the continental opioid epidemic has become more lethal with the arrival of fentanyl and carfentanil — overstrength opioids tainting the supply of morphine and heroin.

“On Tuesday afternoon, the first day of the safe injection site in Ottawa, one-and-a-half hours into their service operating, there was an overdose at the Sheps (the Shepherds of Good Hope shelter) two blocks away,” Leila Attar said into a bullhorn. “To me this indicates the service, while it’s commendable, is unable to meet the needs in our city of a vulnerable population.”

Attar overdosed last fall after three years of deepening drug use, she said. Now in her 10th month of sobriety, she’s dedicated herself to helping other users.

“Instead of listening to those of us on the ground responding to this crisis as best as we can, Fleury and his friends condemn our attempts to respond,” said Stan Kupferschmidt, a harm-reduction worker at the Somerset West Community Health Centre.

“Instead of responding with praise to our tired and exhausted volunteers, or visiting our space, they tell us to shut down,” he objected.

“Shame!” the crowd answered.

They went in to deliver 600 letters of support for their operation and dozens of emptied naloxone kits, formerly filled with a drug that can reverse overdoses.

Fleury didn’t come out to see them, which led to a standoff.

(Attar and others said they’d booked a 1:15 p.m. slot in Fleury’s schedule, presumably not letting on that they’d be bringing dozens of other people. Fleury said later they had no appointment and he had to leave by 1:30 for a clinic visit with his infant son.)

After half an hour, the group taped their protest signs to the walls of city councillors’ shared reception area, spread the naloxone kits out, deposited what they said were 600 letters of support for their operation on the desk, and left. This isn’t over, they said.

Fleury is frustrated that Overdose Prevention Ottawa opened their pop-up site because Ottawa didn’t have a sanctioned one, but insist on keeping the pop-up open even though there is one now.

“They moved their yardstick,” he said in an interview.

Fleury supports supervised injection sites. He supports what the health unit is doing to speed such sites along in Ottawa. He supports the kind of help Overdose Prevention Ottawa is providing to downtown drug users. He supported the city’s forbearance in enforcing laws that could have shut the tent down right away.

Yet he doesn’t want to back their insistence on staying in Raphael Brunet Park now, and he won’t go see the operation.

Nobody should expect to see Mayor Jim Watson at the tent: It’s not in his nature to go places where he’s likely to be yelled at or made uncomfortable, unless he’ll be in the big chair and holding the gavel. He’s on record opposing supervised injection sites anyway, even if he’s stood aside while they’ve moved toward approval here.

For Fleury, it’s more complicated.

“I just don’t want to make a political statement,” he said. Going, he said, would undermine the city’s authority to control its own grounds.

But going to the tent and refusing to go to the tent are both statements, whether he wants them to be or not, and Coun. Mathieu Fleury is a politician.

The public-health unit made a lickety-split decision, despite political opposition, that it would treat the operation as a form of lifesaving “peer support,” a more organized version of giving out naloxone and teaching people the signs of overdoses. The health unit has delivered clean needles and other gear to the tent, adding the pop-up to a couple of dozen clinics and pharmacies it supplies.

The board of health ratified that decision last week. Fleury, a board member, spoke and voted for it.

Nobody is trying to stop the Shepherds of Good Hope and Inner City Health from opening their own version of an injection site on the Shepherds’ property a few blocks away. Fleury talks about a local community-association meeting where Inner City Health’s people pitched their plan.

“The response was crickets,” Fleury said. “A year ago, it would have been completely different. People in the community realize there’s a crisis.”

He won’t offer a checklist  — he won’t say “if you satisfy this, this and this condition, everything will be OK.” But clearly if the tent weren’t in a city park, the discussion would be different.

“In my mind, I’ve always been very supportive of supervised injection,” he said. “It’s in health professionals’ hands and it’s better if we can keep the politics out of it.”

But it’s hard to see any way the professionals at Ottawa Public Health would have rushed to open a temporary injection site if Overdose Prevention Ottawa hadn’t forced it. They’re not doing this for fun, they’re doing it because human beings are dying.

The publicly run injection site can be a huge improvement over not having one and not enough. The pop-up site can be a lifesaving service and not welcome where it is.

Vancouver’s pop-up injection tents are mostly in the alleys that riddle its Downtown Eastside. Toronto’s is in a large park, a bit more separated from neighbours.

Ottawa’s solution is probably for the city to find a scrap of land — a corner of a parking lot? the edge of a public-housing property? — and offer it up, and for Overdose Prevention Ottawa to find the grace to accept it. Jamming Fleury up makes the world better only if it gets us closer to that end.

By David Reevely
Source: Ottawa Citizen