Ontario Premier Doug Ford is defending his government’s decision to stop funding several supervised drug-use sites in the province, suggesting some are closing because they are too close together, as city officials and site operators scramble to find new funding sources.
On Monday, the Premier said he’s “passionate about helping people that have an addiction” but that some Toronto residents complained about the number of sites.
“There’s four safe-injection sites within a kilometre,” Mr. Ford said. “And they don’t want them down there."
He added, “But we’re actually doing pretty good on supporting the overall system in having the safe-injection sites.”
But many, including Eileen de Villa, Toronto’s medical officer of health, Toronto Mayor John Tory and the head of the Canadian Association of Community Health Centres, criticized the province’s move, saying the services are vital to reducing opioid-related overdose deaths.
“We know that this will very likely result in increased deaths,” said Scott Wolfe, executive director of the Canadian Association of Community Health Centres. “We sincerely hope the provincial government will pause and reconsider its decision to close any of these sites.”
In a statement Monday, Mr. Tory said he spoke to Health Minister Christine Elliott on the weekend and expressed concern over the decision. On Monday, Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson sent a letter to Ms. Elliott asking her to immediately reverse the decision and resume funding for the city’s site.
Ms. Elliott declined an interview request. In an e-mail statement, spokeswoman Hayley Chazan said “we are confident the model we have brought forward is the right approach to both prevent and reverse overdoses and connect people struggling with addiction with the care they deserve.”
The province announced Friday it would provide funding for 15 consumption and treatment services sites, which is the government’s new model for supervised drug-use sites. Consumption and treatment services sites are designed to provide supervised drug-use facilities as well as connections to a range of treatment health-care resources. Several sites currently operating didn’t make the list and will no longer receive provincial funding: St. Stephen’s Community House and Street Health, both in Toronto, and a site run by Ottawa Public Health. The sites won’t be forced to shut down immediately, as they received federal exemptions several months ago that give them legal authority to operate. But without provincial funding, site operators say the future is uncertain.
The busiest site in the province, the Works, is also in limbo. Run by Toronto Public Health, the site is under review by the province, but will continue to receive funding and operate normally while a decision is made. Applications for two sites in London, Ont., that have never been open have also been put on hold pending a further review, according to the province.
Dr. de Villa, Toronto’s medical officer of health, said the province’s move will lead to more overdose deaths. She and others are calling for the government to reverse its decision and provide funding so no sites have to close. If the province won’t budge, Dr. de Villa said she will do whatever she can to help prevent site closures.
“No stone will be left unturned,” she said. “I think we have to pursue every option that’s available.”
Keith Egli, an Ottawa city councillor and chair of the Ottawa Public Health board, said he would meet with Mr. Watson and the city’s medical officer of health to discuss possible options for funding the site on a long-term basis, including the possibility of using city funds.
“At this point, we’re going to do the best we can to keep those doors open for people,” Mr. Egli said.
Thomas Kerr, associate director of the BC Centre on Substance Use, rejected Mr. Ford’s assertion that having sites in close proximity is a problem.
“We know that supervised injecting sites are most effective when they’re placed in neighbourhoods with high concentrations of people who use drugs,” Dr. Kerr said, adding that many who use the sites don’t have cars or money for a taxi. “People will not travel great distances to use these facilities.”
Bonnie Henry, British Columbia’s provincial health officer, said the province has been increasing the number of harm-reduction sites in order to deal with the epidemic of opioid-related overdoses. There are now more than 60 supervised drug-use sites in the province, which includes a number located within shelters in order to reach as many people as possible. Dr. Henry said that without the sites, many people would end up using drugs alone in an alley or the bathroom of a shelter, where they would have no help in the event of an overdose.
The sites are not just about supervised drug use, but also about connecting people to a hot meal, providing wound care or helping them find a place to live. Those connections have helped many people, Dr. Henry said.
“It’s really become an important piece of our response to this crisis,” she said.
With files from Laura Stone