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Calgary police patrol the streets near the cities drug safe injection site in Calgary, Alta., on Feb. 21, 2019. Alberta’s health agency opened supervised drug-use sites in its two largest cities over the past two years as the province deals with a growing surge in methamphetamine use and an opioid crisis that killed a record number of people in 2018.Todd Korol/The Globe and Mail

Calgary’s sole supervised drug-use site has become a centre of conflict as neighbours and police say the facility has brought widespread social disorder with it.

The debate even has politicians who backed the site admitting that something has gone wrong and public safety needs to be restored, as they worry that the controversy will cause such services to lose public support.

Alberta’s health agency opened supervised drug-use sites in its two largest cities over the past two years as the province deals with a growing surge in methamphetamine use and an opioid crisis that killed a record number of people in 2018. Calgary police warned in late January that the crime rate around that city’s supervised drug-use site has increased rapidly in recent months, with calls for service up by 29 per cent. That compares with a rise in calls of 4 per cent across Calgary as a whole over the same period.

As a result of the increasing levels of crime in Calgary’s Beltline neighbourhood, police announced this past week that they are redeploying 11 officers to the downtown area to deal with the surge of drug-related disorder and violence. Much of the increase in crime is being attributed to a rise in meth use, which accounts for nearly two-thirds of the visits to the supervised drug-use site, according to Insp. Rob Davidson, who runs the police division around the facility.

The boost to policing is a relief but long overdue according to Will Lawrence, the co-owner of Shelf Life Books. The small book store is across the street from the supervised drug-use site and has faced a challenging year since the facility’s opening.

“Since it opened, drug use has became much more visible. You’ll see a dozen people in front with shopping carts and it makes people uncomfortable. We’ve became conscious that our patrons need to walk through that area to the store and there are now a lot of drug users in the area,” he said.

Calgary Councillor Evan Woolley, whose district hosts the supervised drug-use site, warned that the site could lose public support if the city can’t restore a sense of public safety.

“The site has been successful in saving lives. But if you consider success keeping people safe, then we haven’t been successful. There are lots of people who support this service, but are feeling unsafe in their community; that’s not a success,” said Mr. Woolley, a strong proponent of the facility.

Shelf Life Books has been open for nine years and much has changed since the facility opened. Mr. Lawrence said he supports the supervised drug-use site despite the troubles, however he’s now seriously contemplating whether his store needs to move. A nearby restaurant closed a few months ago, citing a precipitous drop in business after the facility opened.

According to Mr. Lawrence, the bookstore’s employees can now spend hours a day picking up discarded needles outside the store and asking people causing disturbances to leave. He said someone causing problems at the drug-use site was ejected by security, then walked across the street and bashed the bookstore’s front window with a club and stole a book.

The store has had to spend thousands of dollars, replacing the window, installing new cameras and adding locks to the bathroom doors after people starting injecting drugs inside.

“Despite the hard work they do, police aren’t well equipped for the social disorder in the area,” Mr. Lawrence said.

There’s a widespread feeling among businesses and residents in the area that in a rush to open the site as deaths from the opioid crisis increased, health authorities failed to consider the wider impact on public safety outside the facility’s doors, according to David Low, executive director of the neighbourhood’s Victoria Park Business Improvement Area.

“We’re sympathetic that AHS had to react quickly, but they missed some check boxes. Out of the gate they told us that they were going to do this and there was no real consultation," Mr. Low said.

He’s called for the health agency to revisit its relationship with the community as more businesses are contemplating leaving the area. He said drug users feel more emboldened and entitled in the area around the site and that has lead to more fighting and shoplifting. A number of local businesses have told their staff members not to intervene in shoplifting anymore because of the risk to employees, Mr. Low said.

“I don’t want to say, ‘I told you so,’ but everything I was worried about has come to pass. It’s even a little worse because of the methamphetamine spike,” he said.

In the 250-metre area around the Sheldon M. Chumir Health Centre, where the supervised drug-use site is located, police reported a 276-per-cent rise in drug-related calls since the facility opened compared with a three-year average, as well as a 47-per-cent increase in violence and a 45-per-cent jump in breaking and entering.

Dr. Nick Etches, Alberta Health Services’ medical officer for the Calgary zone, said the agency is focusing on getting more information from people in the local community through a liaison committee. He said more security has been added to the facility and a parking spot has been set up for the shopping carts of people using the service.

He added that the reports of social disorder should not overshadow the work done by the facility, which had more than 60,000 visits by the end of January.

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