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Toronto Operators of Moss Park overdose-prevention site defy city, bring in trailer

After previously using tents as safe injection sites, and then an old army tent that was heated, a trailer was placed on Moss Park on Nov. 20, 2017. The rented trailer is more of a permanent structure compared to the tents and should make for a better safe-injection space.

Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

The volunteer activists running the illegal supervised overdose-prevention site in Toronto's Moss Park have defied warnings from city officials and set up a trailer so they can keep working as cold weather sets in.

Zoe Dodd, an activist with the Toronto Harm Reduction Alliance, said the Ontario wing of the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) is paying for the 10-foot-by-40-foot trailer that was brought in on Monday morning. (CUPE represents the city's unionized employees.)

Ms. Dodd explained that city officials have said a trailer would not be welcome, although activists had also been told unofficially the city was unlikely to kick them out of the park. On Monday afternoon, a city spokeswoman would say only that officials were monitoring the situation.

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"I don't know what they'll do," Ms. Dodd said. "We're not an enemy. We're doing life-saving work here and we should be supported. That's the way that the city and politicians and everyone should see it. They should be thanking us."

Activists at the overdose-prevention site have talked for weeks about the need for a trailer on the site in the gritty east-end park, where they say they have reversed more than 100 overdoses since it launched in August.

Earlier this month, the province's Minister of Health, Eric Hoskins, offered a heated tent from Ontario's Emergency Medical Assistance Team (EMAT) that is usually deployed for disaster relief.

But the activists say its narrow shape makes it unsuitable. For example, an agitated drug user can block its only exit. Ms. Dodd said that while the provincial help was welcome, the tent is "claustrophobic." Dr. Hoksins' office declined to comment.

On Monday afternoon, Ms. Dodd said talks were under way on whether the activists could use the generator that came with the EMAT tent to heat the trailer. She also noted that they remain without a washroom, and suggested the city pitch in some portable ones.

In recent weeks, city officials have been focused on getting a permanent, legal supervised-consumption site approved quickly by Health Canada and opened in the Fred Victor Centre for the homeless across the road from Moss Park. Talks to move the volunteers' illegal operation indoors collapsed last month.

City councillor Joe Cressy, chairman of the city's drug-strategy implementation panel, said he supported the use of a trailer in the park until the legal site inside Fred Victor Centre opens. He said Health Canada performed a site inspection last week, and that once Fred Victor gets a green light from Ottawa, it could be open within a week.

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"Clearly, we desperately need a permanent, long-term supervised-injection service in the Moss Park neighbourhood. We need it right away," Mr. Cressy said. "And until that is open, I think we have courageous volunteers who are providing service."

The illegal site in Moss Park has operated since August, with tacit approval of police and city officials. Some local businesses have complained about finding more discarded needles and seeing more open drug use in the area.

Mayor John Tory had called for the site to be dismantled after the city opened its first legal site in August. But after visiting the Moss Park site, and speaking with volunteers and drug users, he appeared to soften his stance. However, he has maintained that a park is not an appropriate site.

"Mayor Tory is focused on doing everything possible to get the federal government's immediate approval of an exemption application to operate a supervised injection-service at the Fred Victor Centre," spokesman Don Peat said. "We have been told by federal officials that this approval is coming very soon. The mayor has been clear that a public park is not a suitable place for this type of facility."

Health Canada has approved three legal supervised injection sites in the city after a lengthy process. One has opened near Yonge-Dundas Square. Two more are to open soon.

But activists say many more, including mobile or "pop-up" sites, are needed to deal with rising numbers of deaths from overdoses of opioids due to the increasing presence of hyper-potent fentanyl in street drugs.

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- With a report from Justin Giovannetti

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