The Ontario government is cutting funding to three supervised drug-use sites and indicated it may also stop supporting the busiest site in the province.
In a press release issued Friday afternoon, the Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care said it has approved 15 sites under its new consumption and treatment services model. Despite the provincial decision to cut funding, the three sites – St. Stephen’s Community House and Street Health in Toronto as well as a site run by Ottawa Public Health – won’t be forced to close. That’s because the sites were given exemptions by the federal government to operate, which means they have permission to remain open. The challenge is the sites will have to find a way to secure funding, such as through fundraising or via an institutional or municipal grant.
The future of another site, the Works, which is operated by Toronto Public Health, is unclear. Another site operated by Ottawa Public Health will remain open for now. It’s provincial funding ends Sunday and it will explore other options to stay open.
Hayley Chazan, press secretary to the Minister of Health, did not explain the rationale for cutting funding but said the ones that are approved are in areas with the greatest need.
Health Minister Christine Elliott has said the province will approve up to 21 sites in total. According to Ms. Chazan, the province will continue to assess applications that come in and may approve more sites.
Bill Sinclair, executive director of St. Stephen’s Community House, said news of the decision came as a surprise.
“We weren’t expecting this answer,” he said. “We were proud to step in the crisis and we were pleased to have the partnership to do that.”
Gillian Kolla, a co-ordinator with the Toronto Overdose Prevention Society, said the changes will have a “devastating” impact on the community.
“Shutting down services in the middle of downtown Toronto in the middle of a crisis is absolutely reprehensible,” she said. “It makes no sense whatsoever.”
Toronto Mayor John Tory said he was disappointed by the province’s decision.
"We are in the midst of an overdose epidemic in our country and supervised consumption services are one of the best tools we have right now to help save lives and I am deeply troubled by this sudden announcement.”
City Councillor Joe Cressy, the chairman of Toronto’s Board of Health who has long advocated for the city’s harm-reduction sites, criticized the sudden decision, which he said came late on a Friday afternoon with no warning and left many questions unanswered.
“On a Friday at 3 p.m. … we are still trying to parse out the details for the delivery of life-saving health care in the midst of an emergency,” he said. “It’s callous. And it’s wrong.”
The federal government allows individuals and groups that want to run a supervised drug use site to apply directly to Health Canada, but sites need to secure their own funding, which is a major challenge.
In an e-mail statement, Ottawa Public Health said it is “disappointed by the decision” and that it will work with community providers to ensure services are still available.
In an e-mail statement, Toronto Public Health said it’s in conversation with the provincial government and will keep serving the community in the meantime. From August, 2017, to March, 2019, more than 40,000 people have visited The Works and nearly 800 overdoses have been reversed, according to Toronto Public Health.
Local businesses had complained about the Works, saying that it has resulted in an increase in discarded needles and drug use in the surrounding area.
All of the province’s supervised drug-use sites were forced to reapply for their permits and funding from the province, after Ontario’s Progressive Conservative government under Premier Doug Ford – who during the spring election campaign said he was “dead against” the facilities – gave them a reprieve in the fall. The government said it intended to limit their number, and that the sites must put more emphasis on getting drug users into treatment programs.
The province’s list of 15 approved sites includes six in Toronto, three in Ottawa, and one each in London, Guelph, Hamilton, Kingston, St. Catharines and Thunder Bay.
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story said Ontario was closing three supervised-drug injection sites. This story has been updated to say they are cutting funding. Also, an earlier version of this article did not include Hayley Chazan’s first name.