Provincial funding to help Somerset West health centre open injection site in new year

The Somerset West Community Health Centre now has everything it needs to open a supervised drug-injection site in the new year, with money from the provincial government to prepare the space and pay staff to operate it.

Ottawa Centre MPP Yasir Naqvi and Ottawa South’s John Fraser went to the centre on Eccles Street on Friday afternoon and promised $220,000 immediately to pay for renovations to a room on the first floor. Somerset West will get an additional $1 million a year to run the injection site, which is to have six spots for drug users to inject and a room next door for them to stay in afterward to make sure they haven’t overdosed.

Somerset West executive director Naini Cloutier was coy about exactly when her site might open. The date depends on how quickly the centre can get final plans done, a building permit approved, contractors to do the job and staff chosen to run it, but the target is the end of January. They’ll have to knock down a wall, modify the ventilation system and plumb for foot-wash stations, she said (some users seek veins in their feet).

“We did not expect that we would move so fast and we have, so I’m quite optimistic that we’ll be able to open in the next few months,” she said. “We’re working as hard as we can.”

Ordinarily, Naqvi said, the government makes a group get every duck lined up before it agrees to anything, which can take a long time to do with money scrimped from other budgets. Then a minister shows up with funding. Here, the Somerset West centre has the money guaranteed and the only thing in the way is logistics.

“We can’t move fast enough. I think everybody recognizes that,” Fraser added. “This is about saving lives to be able to change lives, so you have to take enough time to make sure you get it right.”

The group in the health centre’s upstairs boardroom included Bob Jamison, a former drug user who now works in “peer support,” helping others with addictions stay afloat as best they can. He welcomed the money but asked Naqvi, who’s the province’s attorney general in addition to being the local MPP, whether it comes with a plan to step up policing around the health centre. It doesn’t, Naqvi said. Addiction is a health issue, not a policing issue, he said.

“It’s important that it stays in the public-health realm and not be criminalized,” Jamison agreed.

And it included Stan Kupferschmidt, who runs the centre’s harm-reduction program for people who use drugs. Both Jamison and Kupferschmidt volunteered at Overdose Prevention Ottawa’s illegal injection site in a Lowertown park in the fall, and both marched on city hall to demand support for that pop-up tent from Mayor Jim Watson and Coun. Mathieu Fleury. They wear multiple hats in a complicated world where nothing ever gets done fast enough.

Kupferschmidt said the centre anticipates adding a safer-inhalation option for people who smoke drugs, which federal law also allows, but that’ll take a more extensive renovation and more paperwork. Somerset West chose to open fast and expand later.

Still, we’ve gone from politicians resisting supervised injection sites to accepting them grudgingly to supporting them by press release. Friday, although Naqvi and Fraser had no giant novelty cheque for the Somerset West centre, one wouldn’t have been out of place.

“Addictions are something we’ve all been touched by, whether it’s a family member, a friend, a neighbour, a co-worker. It’s a disease that destroys lives,” Fraser said. Ontario, like other places, is in a crisis, still trying to stem an ever-increasing toll of deadly overdoses.

The culture has changed quickly, said Fraser, who’s the parliamentary assistant to Health Minister Eric Hoskins at Queen’s Park. More people are feeling opioid damage touch them, as people who use drugs like morphine and heroin are finding their supplies tainted by superpotent fentanyl and carfentanil. They’re easy to transport and work with, easily cut into drugs passed off as other opioids, including counterfeit pills that seem to be manufactured prescription painkillers.

At a supervised injection site, a drug user who overdoses can be helped with immediate medical attention. It’s also a place where someone who might have no other social connections can be safe and seek help if he or she wants it.

“If you’d said three years ago that there’ll be three safe-injection sites in the City of Ottawa, I think we all know — you’d have said, ‘That’s not going to happen,’ ” Fraser said. “There’s a recognition in the public that it’s important, that it’s a disease, that we have to do something to address that.”

Ottawa has two approved supervised injection sites operating now: a permanent one at the Shepherds of Good Hope on King Edward Avenue and a temporary one in an Ottawa Public Health office on Clarence Street. A third, at the Sandy Hill Community Health Centre on Rideau Street, has its preliminary federal approval in place but hasn’t completed the renovations its site needs. No others are in the Health Canada pipeline.

By David Reevely
Source: Ottawa Citizen