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Sharyn Abelson stands on Strickland Avenue, her street, which will soon be home to a methadone clinic, in the building at right. (Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail/Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail)
Sharyn Abelson stands on Strickland Avenue, her street, which will soon be home to a methadone clinic, in the building at right. (Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail/Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail)

What's wrong with a new methadone clinic on a quiet Toronto street? Add to ...

The urgent phone calls began resonating down Strickland Avenue at 11 p.m. on June 14.

Before that moment of panic, this cozy corner of Parkdale wasn't particularly tight-knit, but suddenly there was a threat that bonded the laid-back residents of this leafy one-way street.

They had just found out a new neighbour would be arriving by the end of the month: Breakaway Addiction Services, a methadone clinic. What would become of their tranquillity, public safety, property values? No one seemed to have immediate answers.

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In Ontario there is little legal or political recourse to be taken when a clinic for opiate addicts wants into a community - in fact, given the proper zoning is in place, the province encourages integration as a means of destigmatizing methadone users and reframing methadone clinics as wellness-promotion centres. But the way that Breakaway sprang the move on residents of Strickland Avenue has given them a crash course in political jurisdiction, fighting city hall and the surprising face of addiction in Toronto.

It has also put the clinic under the scrutiny of the province, whose approval Breakaway's funding depends on.

"They messed with the wrong neighbourhood," says 38-year-old resident Sharyn Abelson, crossing her hands across her pregnant stomach.

She remembers vividly the night when the calls started going out. "That's impossible," she recalls saying at the time. "A methadone clinic on our street? How can that be?"

In February, Dennis Long, executive director of Breakaway Addiction Services, laid eyes on Strickland Avenue following an exhaustive search for a new home for his opiate treatment centre, currently housed in a Niagara Street building slated for demolition.

Barely a block long, Strickland Avenue's verdant yards, towering trees and lack of traffic seem a universe away from the nearest busy intersection, Queen Street at Brock Avenue, roughly 300 metres southwest.

There he found an ideal new location directly across from Ms. Abelson's semi-detached home: a two-storey industrial office building designed for video editing that was once featured in the architectural magazine Azure.

"We looked all along Queen Street, we looked all over the city," said Mr. Long. "This seemed like a good fit. Our clients want to live quiet, comfortable lives. That's what they will get on Strickland, a more normalizing environment than busier spots."

Mr. Long soon told local councillor Gord Perks, worked out a lease with the landlord and asked the province for $1.5-million in funding to rework the building's interior to meet the needs of a clinic.

Along the way, nobody informed local residents. But under current laws, they didn't need to. Substance dependence is considered a disability under the Human Rights Code. Virtually every Ontario municipality that has tried to weed out methadone clinics has been overruled for discrimination reasons by the Ontario Municipal Board.

Windsor, Ont., has passed a bylaw restricting methadone clinics from locating within 150 metres of residential areas. London is studying a similar proposal. Both cities are expected to face human-rights challenges.

As for the perception that such clinics breed local crime, a 2003 PricewaterhouseCoopers report prepared for the City of Oshawa studied methadone clinics in 11 Ontario municipalities and found they had no impact on the surrounding crime rate. Unknown to neighbours, many Ontario pharmacies already dispense vast quantities of methadone but don't offer the counselling services that might mitigate its effects.

"The mistake in reasoning some folks [on Strickland]make is in assuming there was ever a moment when they had a right to say 'no' to this," said Mr. Perks. "Breakaway qualifies as a medical facility, the same, legally speaking, as a dental clinic or a doctor's office. It's the same principle in law that says you don't need your neighbour's permission to buy a house."

Toronto has never been a big heroin market, but starting about 15 years ago, prescription opiates such as oxycodone began flooding city streets. Methadone arose as the favoured treatment, a synthetic opiate ingested orally that could wean users off the drugs, known simply as oxys, without the euphoric high. But an addiction that struck such a broad cross-section of people required an equally broad distribution of treatment centres. In 2007, a provincial task force urged the ministry of health to freely integrate methadone clinics into communities and employ an "anti-stigma strategy."

Breakaway is a small clinic, with just 110 clients, and it maintains a full health staff of social workers, nurses, counsellors and a doctor. At peak times, six patients an hour go through the clinic. Clients sign an agreement in which they promise not to loiter, be violent or engage in criminal activity anywhere near Breakaway.

"We're unique in the province," says Mr. Long. "People think of methadone clinics and they think of people lining up and smoking and causing a nuisance in the neighbourhood. We're different. We are not bringing drug users in. Our clients are people who've been in the program for an average of 5 to 7 years, they are in the process of getting their lives together, they are lawyers, they are recreational hockey players."

Still, Strickland residents don't trust Breakaway. They feel they can't after the secretive way the clinic made its way onto the street. While Mr. Perks told the organization to inform local residents as far back as March, Mr. Long waited until June to do so, a week after he had signed a lease on 21 Strickland.

"I didn't want to get the whole neighbourhood up in arms and find out the deal falls through," Mr. Long says.

Avoiding residents' antipathy early in the process is exactly why he's facing it two-fold now.

"It was cowardly," says Ms. Abelson, sitting on her front porch one recent afternoon. "I fully support Breakaway and the work they do. But this isn't the place." When she heard the full details of the Breakaway move last week, she distributed flyers to local mailboxes. Around 50 people turned out for an ad-hoc community meeting that followed and 135 people have signed up on a Facebook site.

"I know people think this is a case of NIMBY [not in my backyard]" said another resident, Aki Kyrou. "It's not. We already have a rail-line in our backyard, beer stores and an LCBO in our backyard, Parkdale Legal [a low-income legal-aid office]and St. Francis' Table [a soup-kitchen]in our side yard. This is Parkdale. We're open to all. But when does it stop? We've run out of yards."

Other residents have talked to realtors who've told them their property values will decrease.

While Councillor Perks hasn't given them much hope their concerns will effect change, the province just might. A provincial spokesman told The Globe and Mail that, based on the outcry, they have told Breakaway to be more forthcoming or risk losing the $1.5-million in funding it has asked for from Queen's Park to renovate the Strickland building.

"We have made it clear to Breakaway that we expect them to do much more consultation with the community than they have," said Janine Hopkins, spokeswoman for the Toronto Central Local Health Integration Network, the local provincial health authority. "We are going to be watching them closely."

Breakaway operates on $2-million a year from the province, and it seems to be listening, promising to form a committee to consult neighbours. "Maybe we didn't do this perfectly," Mr. Long now admits. "We'll have to look at that."

That doesn't mean he'll hold off the move, scheduled for June 28. The wrecking ball is coming down on Breakaway. It has no choice but to relocate or fold.

And that leaves Strickland residents with a similar choice: accept their new neighbour or get out of Parkdale.

"It's hard to ask for neighbours' trust when you've violated it even before you've arrived," said Ms. Abelson. "Right now, my concern is that I don't even know what I should be concerned about. We don't have any idea of what our neighbourhood will look like in six months, a year, 10 years. I can guarantee you one thing: It won't be a better place to live."

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