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Safe Injection Site Pops Up in Lowertown

by Baneet Braich

Photo: Overdose Prevention Ottawa

Photo: Overdose Prevention Ottawa

A new “pop-up” safe injection site in Lowertown is intervening in the current opioid crisis, working to save drug users from overdoses.

The site is currently operating without governmental permission, but local community activists stress the urgency in saving lives now.

“In mid-August, a few of us who were directly impacted with losing loved ones to overdose decided we couldn’t stand by while those we loved died, and that we would act instead of talk,” Stan Kupferschmidt, an organizer and volunteer with Overdose Prevention Ottawa, explained to the Leveller. “A week after our first meeting, we opened Ottawa’s first overdose prevention site on unceded Algonquin territory to save lives.”

Since the pop-up site opened on Aug. 25, drug user can inject drugs in a supervised and safe way at its location in Raphael Brunet Park in Lowertown. Operated by volunteers for 3 hours per day, the service was accessed 575 times in its first 19 days of operation.

“We are a collective that refuses to wait for action or permission or direction from the very people who are most disconnected from those who face the realities of prohibition and the drug war” said Kupferschmidt. “We would not have been able to do this without the inspiration from organizers in Vancouver and Toronto who inspired and supported us.”

The unsanctioned pop-up site challenges prejudices and objections to drug use occurring next to public places. Some people have even tried to physically prevent the site from operating. On Sept. 8 supporters of the site rallied in a non-confrontation and peaceful manner against some residents who are hostile to the site, ensuring that there was no disruption in service.

Some neighbours argue these sites promote drug use, take up too much space and are illegal. Meanwhile, supporters assert that the pop-up injection sites save lives by preventing overdoses. Drug users say these sites are providing a safe and respectful environment to use drugs, in contrast to consuming drugs unsafely elsewhere. According to Overdose Prevention Ottawa, this support service aims to support marginalized communities and offer a process for healing.

For five years, the Sandy Hill Community Health Centre has been fighting to open a safe injection site; it finally received permission from Health Canada in July and funding from the Ontario government on Sept. 14. But the site requires significant renovation and will probably not open for another ten weeks.

However, Ottawa’s medical health officer is pushing for a temporary site to be opened in September. Dr. Isra Levy stressed the “urgent and immediate need” to respond to the crisis in a memo to the mayor, council and board of health on Sept. 12. The interim supervised injection site would operate indoors for 120 days at 179 Clarence Street and would be operated by the Sandy Hill Community Health Centre.

“To date in 2017, we are seeing an average of nearly 120 emergency room visits for suspected opioid overdose each month in Ottawa, compared with fewer than 100 per month in 2016,” he wrote in the memo. “There has also been a 22-per-cent increase in suspected opioid overdose-related emergency department (ED) visits during June, July and August, compared with January through May.”

The pop-up initiative challenges notions of how communities should respond to the opioid crisis, pushing the city to step up its response to overdoses. Mayor Jim Watson, one of safe injection sites strongest opponents, has tacitly accepted the need for them by suggesting the pop-up site move to Sandy Hill.

As Ottawa’s opioid crisis escalates, supervised injection sites and pop-up services are changing the game, bringing awareness and prevention to those who need it most.  

Support is essential for overdose prevention and Overdose Prevention Ottawa is seeking further help. Options for donations are posted to their GoFundMe account at: https://www.gofundme.com/OverdosePreventionOttawa

This article first appeared in the Leveller Vol. 10, No. 1 (Sept/Oct 2017).

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