Operators of supervised drug-use sites that may be forced to close in Toronto and Ottawa are calling for Ontario’s funding cuts to be reversed because they say they have fulfilled all of the province’s requirements for financial support.
The Ontario government announced last week it would fund 15 supervised drug-use sites as of April 1 under the province’s new consumption and treatment services model. But it rejected applications submitted by three existing sites, scrapping funding for St. Stephen’s Community House and Street Health in Toronto and a site run by Ottawa Public Health.
The sites cannot be shut down by the province as they have exemptions from the federal government which allow them to continue operating legally, but without long-term funding, they may be forced to close. A fourth site, the Works, run by Toronto Public Health, is under review and could also have its funding cut.
The mayors of both cities have asked the province to reverse their decision. Both cities have experienced a recent surge in opioid-related overdoses and fatalities.
Earlier this week, Health Minister Christine Elliott told reporters the sites being cut off failed to meet the criteria outlined in the consumption and treatment services application. She highlighted three areas where the sites fell short: proximity to other sites (the province states no two should be within 600 metres of each other); the need for consultation with the community; and inadequate “wraparound” services, which the province’s site application describes as “access to primary care, treatment, and other health and social services."
Kapri Rabin, executive director of Street Health, said the site met all provincial criteria except for the proximity rule. The site is 350 metres from the nearest supervised drug-use site. But she questioned why that should disqualify it, as two of the other Toronto sites approved by the province are about 350 metres apart from each other.
Earlier this week, Mr. Ford suggested Street Health’s funding was cut because of complaints from a neighbourhood association. He said he met with the Cabbagetown South Residents’ Association and that they complained about four sites being in close proximity.
“They don’t want them down there,” Mr. Ford said.
Street Health is the only supervised drug-use site within the association’s boundaries.
In a statement, the association said it supports the three sites the province approved in the vicinity. (There are five sites in the vicinity including the Works and Street Health.) The statement did not mention Street Health and the association did not respond to an interview request.
“You need to ask yourself what were these decisions really based on,” Ms. Rabin said.
Ms. Rabin highlighted the fact that all three defunded sites have received federal approval to operate. The federal application, like the province’s, requires them to demonstrate that they offer wraparound services and have conducted community consultations, among other things.
Bill Sinclair, executive director of St. Stephen’s Community House in Toronto’s Kensington Market neighbourhood, said the site meets all of the provincial criteria and that in numerous discussions with officials during the application phase, no one indicated there was any area lacking. St. Stephen’s is not near another supervised drug-use site. There is a doctor and nurse on site, counselling, treatment and housing resources, as well as access to food, showers and laundry, Mr. Sinclair said. The site has continuing discussions with its neighbours and recently did a door-to-door campaign to talk to community members about the site to identify any potential problems. Mr. Sinclair said he has not received any complaints, nor has the local city councillor or member of provincial Parliament.
“We think we’ve done tremendous community engagement,” Mr. Sinclair said. “We definitely feel we provide great wraparound services.”
Andrew Hendriks, director of health promotion with Ottawa Public Health, said the application for its site at 179 Clarence St. fulfilled everything the province asked for, with one exception: The site is less than 600 metres from another site. But both sites typically operate at capacity, demonstrating there is a need for services, he said.
“The 600-metre criteria or requirement, to a certain extent, is an artificial one,” he said. “Services need to be provided where they’re required in the community.”
In an e-mail, Ms. Elliott’s spokeswoman Hayley Chazan said applications that were rejected had issues relating to proximity, community engagement or hours of operation, as the application gives preference to sites open seven days a week. The minister has spoken with the mayors of Ottawa and Toronto as well as federal Health Minister Ginette Petitpas Taylor, she said.
Toronto Public Health said there were 474 overdose calls last month, including 22 deaths linked to suspected opioid overdoses. That was the highest number of calls received since September, 2017.