A non-profit that runs a shelter and detox facility in Calgary has put its plan to open a drug overdose prevention site on hold, weeks after the city’s largest homeless shelter said it was walking away from a similar proposal.
Alpha House Society cancelled two planned community engagement sessions this week and e-mailed neighbourhood associations and other stakeholders saying the organization needed more time to make a decision. The Calgary Drop-In Centre announced in early September that it had cancelled a plan to operate a site at its shelter, located on the eastern edge of the city’s downtown, due to local opposition.
The provincial government had asked both groups to operate overdose prevention sites (OPS), which allow users to consume drugs in the presence of medical personnel. They were to replace the city’s lone supervised consumption site, in the Sheldon M. Chumir Health Centre, an urgent care centre, which the province has planned to shut down for more than a year. It’s not clear when the facility at the Chumir Centre will close.
Alpha House spokesperson Shaundra Bruvall e-mailed the stakeholders, including community and business groups, on Wednesday evening, saying the decision was prompted by the cancellation of the drop-in centre’s proposal. “There are now several uncertainties related to the situation of overdose prevention services in the city,” Ms. Bruvall wrote in the e-mail, which was obtained by The Globe and Mail.
“While we are still committed to understanding what a possible OPS would look like at Alpha House’s shelter and detox facility, it is clear to us that we require more information before making any official decisions. As such, we do not wish to waste anyone’s time when there are many questions Alpha House would simply be unable to answer at this time.”
Ms. Bruvall did not give details of what information Alpha House needs.
The e-mail included attachments that say the provincial government asked Alpha House to operate a site beginning in October. The documents show Alpha House was considering renovating a designated space that would include three consumption booths. She said in a statement on Thursday that Alpha House does not have a clear timeline for resuming community engagement sessions.
Mike Ellis, associate minister of mental health and addictions, confirmed Alpha House’s decision on Twitter on Thursday in posts that were subsequently deleted. In the tweets, Mr. Ellis said he was disappointed by Alpha House’s decision to put the process on hold, which he said the organization made without input from the provincial government.
“Alberta’s government will continue to work with the City of Calgary, local residents, business owners and community stakeholders to establish a more suitable overdose prevention model within Calgary than what currently exists,” one of the tweets said.
His spokesperson, Eric Engler, did not respond to several requests for comment.
More than 7,400 Albertans have died by unintentional drug overdoses since 2016, the majority linked to opioids such as fentanyl. The crisis has worsened during the pandemic. Overdose deaths peaked at the end of last year, with a record 174 people dying per month in November and December, and have since fallen. Fatal opioid-related overdoses were below 100 in June and July for the first time in more than two years, but remain far above prepandemic levels.
Sandra Clarkson, executive director of the drop-in, said in an interview last week that it was clear during three community engagement sessions that it would be “impossible” to complete the province’s requirement for what is known as a good-neighbour agreement. These arrangements must be signed by local businesses, community associations and residents within a 200-metre radius of a proposed supervised drug-use site. They include the responsibilities and commitments of each party, plus the service provider, and a dispute resolution process.
“There were a lot of backdoor meetings that were taking place afterwards,” and strong opposition efforts from residents, businesses and developers in the area, Ms. Clarkson said. “It became really clear that it was an impossible situation in terms of getting that agreement to move forward.”
She said the proposed overdose prevention site became a “lightning rod” in a debate about social disorder and safety in the area. “They were looking for guarantees that an overdose prevention service would solve all of those issues for the community, which is impossible.”
The good-neighbour agreements were introduced after years of vocal opposition by some businesses and communities that cited increases in crime and social disorder as a result of supervised consumption sites. The United Conservative Party government ordered a review of such sites after taking power in 2019 and shifted its focus to recovery-oriented services such as residential treatment facilities, detox beds and opioid withdrawal supports. It has also continued funding overdose prevention sites.
A government report released in 2020 pointed to deteriorating public safety near such facilities. Academic and public health experts criticized the report’s methodology.