Mayor hopes winter freezes pop-up injection site out of Lowertown

The pop-up supervised injection tent run by activist volunteers in Lowertown has saved lives, Mayor Jim Watson says, but he’s still refused an offer from the provincial government to help keep them and their clients warm.

Overdose Prevention Ottawa’s tent in Raphael Brunet Park on St. Patrick Street is modelled on ones in Vancouver, where the climate is warmer, and Toronto, where it isn’t.

Toronto’s pop-up site has been using a light tent, the kind you could buy at Costco for a couple of hundred dollars. It was fine in September, not so good in the cold and wet of deepening autumn.

Now it’s been replaced by a military-style shelter meant to be deployed as part of a field hospital after a disaster or in an epidemic. It’s a gift from the provincial government, after Mayor John Tory asked for it.

Members of the provincial government’s Emergency Medical Assistance Team, on the instructions of Health Minister Eric Hoskins, went to set it up and teach the Toronto volunteers how to work the tent and its systems themselves.

“Mayor Watson is not focused on events unfolding in Toronto,” Watson’s spokeswoman Livia Belcea said by email Friday. “(T)he mayor is focused on the funding needs of the three local agencies that are working with the province and the government of Canada to set up sanctioned supervised injection sites.”

Watson — this is new — asked federal Health Minister Ginette Petitpas Taylor to hurry and approve a supervised injection service at Ottawa Inner City Health, operating out of the Shepherds of Good Hope on king Edward Avenue. In a letter he sent Thursday, he implicitly praised Overdose Prevention Ottawa’s work.

“OPO’s actions are in response to a significant rise in overdoses occurring in the neighbourhood; the site as clearly demonstrated a need for (a supervised injection site) in the area, and many lives have been saved by overdose reversals,” the mayor wrote.

That’s a major turnaround for someone who’s opposed supervised injection sites from the moment the notion arose here.

“However,” he added, “operating this type of health service in a city park is not sustainable — not least because winter is approaching.”

Certainly not if you block equipment that could keep people warm and dry. Which is what he’s done.

“Our government has been working diligently with our partners in Ottawa to open a safe and warm place for the Overdose Prevention Ottawa volunteers and clients to go,” Hoskins, the health minister, said in a written statement.

“While we await federal approval to open a new sanctioned Supervised Injection Site at Ottawa Inner City Health to support this group, the province reached out to the City of Ottawa to offer a portable generator, heater and an EMAT tent for the site in Raphael Brunet park — the same resources recently provided in Moss Park in Toronto — but these were declined,” he said.

Inner City Health’s site is to open Monday, after a final federal inspection in the morning, and be available to users 24/7. It’ll join a site run by Ottawa Public Health on Clarence Street, open shorter hours but indoors and staffed by professionals.

All three sites — the tent, the health unit’s and Inner City Health’s — will be just a couple of blocks apart.

But between now and then, Saturday night is supposed to be a cold one. Sunday is to be rainy, maybe another record-setter. Cold and rain are the two things that have made Overdose Prevention Ottawa pack it in early, or not open at all.

“(W)e are disappointed that (Coun. Mathieu) Fleury and Watson want to play politics with people’s lives,” said James Hutt, one of Overdose Prevention Ottawa’s leaders. “We think it is especially shameful to say one wants a solution to the opioid crisis and then to refuse help when the province is offering.”

What they really need, Hutt said, is money.

“The province should be funding the experts like us who are doing the work on the ground,” he said. “Our model of care works, we are saving lives, reducing harm, providing resource referrals to essential services including detox. We are meeting people where they are most needing services and in a way that reduces many barriers to access.”

At the same time, you can see why Overdose Prevention Ottawa might frustrate people in power.

OPO first defined itself as a desperate stopgap, filling in to save lives until sanctioned injection sites opened. Superpotent fentanyl and carfentanil were tainting the street-drug supply and killing unsuspecting users. People need to use with someone around to help them.

Now the health unit has an approved site not far away on Clarence Street but the tent still goes up every night. OPO has changed its plan, promising to keep working until the overdose crisis is over, however long that might take.

Just on Monday, when it was very windy and OPO said it couldn’t open, the group said it needed “more secure infrastructure.” Now it’s cash.

But despite the Clarence Street site, dozens of people a day still go to the tent in Raphael Brunet Park. There’s a reason.

Inner City Health, open around the clock, should go a long way toward making Overdose Prevention Ottawa obsolete. If that isn’t what happens, if drug users keep going to the tent to have their lives saved, freezing them out will be wrong. Evil, even. We’ll know pretty quickly which way things are going.

By David Reevely
Source: Ottawa Citizen