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A mobile overdose prevention site in Winnipeg has seen tens of thousands of visits from people looking to access services or use drugs in a safe setting.HO/The Canadian Press

Manitoba will soon announce the next steps in the establishment of the province’s first permanent supervised consumption site in downtown Winnipeg, according to Addictions and Homelessness Minister Bernadette Smith.

Ms. Smith said the government is working on a community-led approach and is collaborating with organizations who are on the front lines, experts with provincial agency Shared Health and people who use drugs and their families. She said further details will be released in the coming weeks.

They’ve all “told us that this has been needed for a long, long time,” Ms. Smith said in an interview with The Globe and Mail.

The minister would not confirm if she has accepted a proposal from Sunshine House, which operates a mobile overdose-prevention site, to have the Indigenous-led Aboriginal Health and Wellness Centre lead the permanent facility.

Preliminary data from Manitoba’s Office of the Chief Medical Examiner reported that there were 445 drug-related deaths in the province in 2023 and 467 in 2022.

The province plans to spend $2.5-million on a supervised consumption site, Premier Wab Kinew said during a news conference after releasing his 2024 budget earlier this month. In addition, he said, it will hire 20 mental-health workers to work alongside police, open 400 new detox beds, and spend $500,000 on 24/7 sobering centres in Brandon and Thompson.

“The addictions crisis is one that is costing lives for people that we care about in the province of Manitoba and because the stakes are so high, we have to get it right,” he said at the time.

Ms. Smith said one of the first steps the province has taken is ordering two FTIR spectrometers. These instruments will assist urban and rural organizations that focus on harm reduction to test substances for toxic contaminants.

“We’re coming out of a government – 7½ years – that didn’t take a harm-reduction approach,” Ms. Smith said. “And we see the result of that – too many deaths in Manitoba, and one death is way too many.”

The former Progressive Conservative government has criticized the proposal of a supervised consumption site in the past. Opposition Leader Wayne Ewasko did not respond to The Globe’s request for comment.

On Thursday, Sunshine House released a 91-page report completed by independent firm LAHRK Consulting to review the first year of its mobile overdose-prevention site.

From October, 2022, to October, 2023, there were 26,154 visits to the mobile site, with 7,086 of those visits by people who were there to use drugs, the report said.

Kerniel Aasland, one of the authors of the report, says the mobile service reversed 20 overdoses and there were no deaths at the site.

“It’s a safe space for people to access services, access supports, connect with community and sometimes use drugs and do it in a way that’s safe and keeps them alive so they’re still around tomorrow,” Mr. Aasland said.

He says the mobile overdose-prevention site exceeded expectations.

LAHRK Consulting collected data through interviews, focus groups and surveys.

When overdoses are avoided, it lessens the number of ambulance calls and hospital visits, which reduces costs on the health care system and the “spillover effect” on other organizations focusing on harm reduction, Mr. Aasland said.

The report also showed that there were fewer needles and substances on the ground near the mobile unit and more materials were being disposed of safely.

Mr. Aasland says that if people don’t have a safe space to use drugs, they are more likely to rush, use by themselves or use in public spaces.

Davey Francis Cole, Sunshine House’s co-ordinator for the mobile overdose-prevention site, says the organization has the resources, such as an FTIR spectrometer, that has positively transformed the lives of people who use drugs because they have the autonomy to choose what they use.

“It really puts power back into people’s hands in their lives and that’s been so fruitful and exciting, and I’m so honoured to be a part of that,” Mx. Cole said.

Mx. Cole oversees the site along with other staff and people they’ve hired in the community who have used or currently use drugs.

The site operates out of an RV that travels around Winnipeg’s inner city five days a week.

Sunshine House executive director Levi Foy says there were 782 visits to the site in November 2022 with a drastic jump to 3,601 visits in November last year.

“We cannot do this in the capacity that we’re doing it now because it is a highly imperfect model and we’re doing it because we have to, but it is not sustainable,” he said.

From June, 2022, to October, 2023, Health Canada provided Sunshine House with $385,337 to run the site through funding from the Substance Abuse and Addictions Program.

A spokesperson for Health Canada said in an e-mail to The Globe that project funding is “time-limited and not meant to provide long-term sustainability.”

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