After Ontario’s Progressive Conservative government announced last month that it would stop funding a number of supervised drug-use sites in the province, Premier Doug Ford suggested a reason: Neighbours often don’t like them. While it is a good thing to help people suffering from drug addiction, he told reporters, “with all due respect … if I put one beside your house, you’d be going ballistic.” That, he said, was simply “the reality of things.”
But in at least one famous Toronto neighbourhood, it is not the reality at all. Far from saying “not in my backyard,” many business owners and residents in historic Kensington Market are rallying to support the local site. They are raising money to keep it running. They are writing protest letters and signing petitions. At a boisterous demonstration to press the government to keep it open, they chanted slogans and waved placards saying things like “no cuts in a crisis” and “the market cares for everyone.”
A warren of city blocks just west of Spadina Avenue in the city’s downtown west end, Kensington has evolved over the generations from a bustling marketplace where Jewish immigrants sold pickles and chickens from pushcarts to a Bohemian enclave of bars, cafés, taco joints and vintage-clothing stores. It has struggled for years with homelessness and drug use in its narrow streets and alleys.
The small overdose-prevention site at St. Stephen’s Community House on Augusta Avenue has been open for a year. It is one of two in Toronto that lost its provincial funding. The other is Street Health at Dundas and Sherbourne Streets in the east end. A third, Toronto Public Health’s The Works, is under review.
The defunding decision, announced with little explanation on March 29 in the midst of a countrywide opioid crisis, caused an uproar among health experts and advocates of better treatment for drug users. Pioneered in Vancouver, supervised drug-use and overdose-prevention sites give users a secure, hygienic space where they can take their drugs. If they suffer an overdose, trained staff are there to revive them with oxygen or the overdose-reversal medication naloxone.
Overdoses are killing people at a staggering rate in Toronto, which saw 22 succumb last month alone. The Kensington-Chinatown neighbourhood is one of the top five in the city for suspected-overdose calls to emergency services.
So for many Kensington locals, the provincial decision is hard to understand. The site on Augusta has been operating without any noticeable fuss or trouble. David Beaver, co-owner of Wanda’s Pie in the Sky, which offers pies and other treats across the street, said he didn’t know until recently that it was even there. He would far rather see people use drugs in safety than sneak into the bathroom at his place. “It’s so idiotic,” he says of the funding cut. “Just small-minded thinking.’’
Down the street at 4Life Natural Foods, owner Potsothy Sallapa, a market veteran whom everyone knows as “Pots,” says that if drug users don’t visit the site, “where are they going to go: the schoolyard, the park, the street?”
When homeless people started sleeping under the big compressor for his refrigeration unit out back, he didn’t call the police; he left sleeping bags out so they wouldn’t freeze in the winter. “As citizens, we have to take care of them,” he said.
Even the local school is speaking up. Two school-council members from the Kensington Community School sent a letter to Mr. Ford urging him to restore funding. They said the evidence shows sites such as these improve, not threaten, public security nearby. “As parents with children in a downtown elementary school,” they said, “we have a strong, vested interest in the safety of our neighbourhood.”
More than 5,500 people have signed one online petition. Thousands of dollars in donations to fund the site have come in from Kensington and beyond, including $20,000 on Thursday from the Toronto Overdose Prevention Society. More was to be raised at a drinks-and-dance event at a local bar on Sunday.
Not every supervised drug-use site has such sympathetic neighbours. Not all are trouble-free, either. This winter, Calgary police reported that crime had soared around one local site, Safeworks. In Toronto, merchants complained about more crime and open drug use after The Works opened up steps from the giant Eaton Centre shopping mall. Nearby Ryerson University complained about more vandalism and theft. In Cabbagetown, a few blocks to the east, the local city councillor claimed last summer that the area had the most such sites of any neighbourhood in the world – five within a one-kilometre radius. Mr. Ford was picking up on that complaint when he talked about local opposition to the sites.
But St. Stephen’s is on a much smaller scale. It is open for just four hours a day. About 130 to 150 people come in to inject every month, around the same number that visit The Works every day. So why take away its funding?
St. Stephen’s says the government has never given any justification in writing. When asked by The Globe and Mail, a spokeswoman for Health Minister Christine Elliott said only that ministry requirements include “providing a viable community engagement and liaison plan, with preference given to sites that offered consistent hours of operation throughout the week.”
Given its tight relationship with the community and its regular opening hours – Sunday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 12 p.m. – the Kensington site would seem to fit the bill.
One reason for the decision may be that there is another site nearby. St. Stephen’s is about a 15-minute walk from one at Queen and Bathurst Streets. The Premier has said it doesn’t make sense to have sites in close proximity to each other. But Lorie Steer, director of housing and homeless services at St. Stephen’s, says studies show drug users won’t go far from their usual hangouts to use supervised drug-use sites. So having one in the heart of the community, in a place locals are used to visiting for free meals and drug supplies, is a big plus.
She rejects another possible reason, too. The Ford government says it wants the injection sites to do more that just provide a place to use drugs; it wants them to provide addiction treatment and health and social services, too. Operating in a big, busy community centre with a long history of helping the neighbourhood’s marginalized people, St. Stephen’s is well-positioned to do just that, Ms. Steer says. It offers visitors help with everything from getting child care and mental-health support to finding jobs and apartments.
The site strives to be as approachable as it can. The basement space has a welcoming dorm-room feel, with easy chairs in the corner to rest in. Staff hand out plastic-wrapped packages of injection and smoking supplies to people who stop by. Visitors go into a side room with two stainless-steel drug-use tables, each equipped with mirrors, bright lights, sanitizer, tissues and a disposal bin for used needles.
On one morning last week, Joseph Ascenzo, 34, came in to inject crystal meth, the potent methamphetamine. He said he felt safe using at the site, with people he knows close by. His wife died of an overdose a couple of years ago. He wishes the site had been open when she was around; if so, she might have lived.