TORONTO — Harm reduction workers in Toronto are calling for the immediate opening of interim safe injection spaces and social housing with a focus on helping drug users as the city deals with a spike in opioid overdoses.
The demands were among a list of measures issued by the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty and other advocacy groups on Friday, as they called for a declaration of a public health emergency over the issue and asked for the wide distribution of drug testing kits in the city.
A string of overdoses and suspected overdose deaths has put the issue of opioid use under the spotlight in Toronto in recent days.
Last week, the city announced it was speeding up the opening of three supervised injection sites, and widening the distribution of the opioid overdose antidote naloxone to public health staff, community agencies and first responders. It also asked local police to consider having some officers carry naloxone.
This week, more than a dozen harm reduction workers met with Toronto Mayor John Tory on Thursday to discuss the recent rise in overdoses. One attendee described how two workers had to leave early to respond to two overdoses that took place during the meeting itself.
Tory said in a statement that the stories he heard from front line workers were "heart-wrenching" and said he would speak with Ontario's health minister to get more help from the province.
Jacob Nagy, a peer supporter at the Queen West Health Centre said that providing social housing that caters to drug users, with specific "harm reduction beds," would make a difference.
"In a regular shelter bed if you get caught using, you get discharged and that's the difference. The harm reduction beds will turn their heads if they see you using," said Nagy, who explained that being discharged can lead to people using drugs in a less controlled environment where they could overdose and die.
"People are living in poverty and they're using (drugs) to cope."
He also said that drug users would be less afraid to call 911 if police only responded to overdose calls while carrying naloxone.
"With the police being there, it makes people feel vulnerable and at risk of arrest," said Nagy. "Ultimately, it puts lives at risk."
Advocates also said immediately opening interim drug use spaces would save lives while the city prepared three supervised injection sites that are expected to open later this year.
"We're in the midst of a crisis now, and waiting until the fall for the safe injection sites means that more people will die unnecessarily," said Jessica Hales, a member of the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty
"Hopefully we can prevent that by having public sites available so people can intervene if there's and overdose."
But Coun. Joe Cressy, Chair of the Toronto Drug Strategy Implementation Panel, said that demand was not feasible as injection sites are governed by federal rules.
He said, however, that the city was doing everything it can to deal with the rise in overdoses, adding that Toronto needed more action from the provincial and federal government to make bigger strides.
"Front line harm reduction workers are losing their friends, their co-workers, they're losing their clients, and they're not seeing the level of inter-governmental response that's required, and I agree with them," said Cressy, who said he sympathizes with the harm reduction community's frustration.
"While I'm immensely proud of the committed hard work of city staff ... I'm the first to acknowledge that just as the provincial and federal governments need to do more, we need to do more as well."