Mobile safe consumption sites planned for east Calgary by end of year

HIV Community Link is proposing safe consumption programs in two locations it is currently zeroing in on in Calgary’s east side where they say stats show a gap in resources for opioid and drug users.
An example of some of the materials provided free of charge to clients who enter the supervised consumption site at the Sheldon M. Chumir Health Centre in the city's Beltline. (Mike Symington/CBC)

There's a new safe consumption program planned for Calgary — but unlike the Sheldon M. Chumir location, this plan is more compact and mobile.

HIV Community Link is proposing safe consumption services in two fixed locations — still being determined — on Calgary's east side, where stats show a gap in resources for users of opioids and other drugs.

The city's first supervised consumption site at Sheldon M. Chumir launched last November, and in its first few months had more than 1,000 visitors and saved dozens of lives.

Leslie Hill is the executive director of HIV Community Link and also sits as co-chair on the Calgary Coalition on Supervised Consumption.

"Last summer, we conducted a needs assessment around what's occurring in relation to overdoses in the community where overdoses are occurring," she said. "We talked to people with lived experience and did surveys with about 300 people who use drugs, to understand their need for services."

She said that from that initial site in the Beltline, they were able to look at data and see how it impacted the area's overdoses.

'Still a need'

"There's still a need in a couple of areas in the city," said Hill. "And we're seeing a hotspot of overdoses in the east end of downtown and also in the east, what we kind of refer to as the east corridor in Calgary."

With more than one area to cover, they started planning for a mobile approach to harm reduction: a vehicle about the size of a food truck.

Leslie Hill is the executive director of HIV Community Link and also sits as co-chair on the Calgary Coalition on Supervised Consumption. (Justin Pennell/CBC)

She said the truck will have space for two booths, and everything offered on-site will be self-contained in the vehicle. There will be medical staff on hand to supervise people who have taken substances. 

The budget isn't set in stone yet, but Hill said to operate the mobile sites and staff them would cost in the neighbourhood of $1.9 million annually. 

HIV Community Link has begun the process of getting approval for its consumption programming from the federal government.

Community engagement underway

Right now, the group is initiating community consultation with stakeholders to explain its project, how it might work and benefit each of the two communities they're looking to serve in the city's east side.

"We wouldn't be moving it around in the community. It would be finding a set location to park it at for a period of time, every single day, so that people know when to access us, but then moving it to the other location at other times during the day," Hill said. "That would be based on data around when overdoses are occurring in each of those communities."

The locations being looked at include East Village and Forest Lawn.

Alain Dupere, president of the East Village Neighbourhood Association, said his group hasn't heard much about the project and has a lot of questions on behalf of residents.

'Nobody knows much about it'

"The reality is, nobody really knows much about it," he said. "We're in an information gathering stage. Our hopes are that we will get to learn more about it and the community's voice will be heard and respected."

He said the East Village already has social issues, like the needles he said litter alleyways near the National Music Centre.

Hill said that from what they've seen, harm reduction programs are good for neighbourhoods because they give users safe spaces to consume instead of the parks and alleyways where residents see evidence of drug use.

So far, Dupere has met with HIV Link once and felt that what it presented felt like a "fait accompli."

"We're looking forward to learning about this project. We do wish there had maybe been some consultation at an earlier stage," he said. "We look forward to working with HIV CL to learn about the project and inform our residents. And at that point, we will be able to gauge what the neighbourhood and the residents' views are ... we will absolutely defend the rights of our residents."

Alain Dupere, president of the East Village Neighbourhood Association, said his group hasn't heard much about the project and has a lot of questions on behalf of residents. (Justin Pennell/CBC)

Hill said HIV Community Link plans to send out informational postcards to the zones it is looking to cover with this mobile site. Then, she hopes citizens in those areas can get in touch and learn more in focus group sessions.

Social challenges

Clare LePan, director or marketing and communications with the Calgary Municipal Land Corporation, said they are also trying to understand the proposed project and how it will work in the East Village.

"We've obviously as a developer of the community invested a significant amount of money in the community over the past 10 years," LePan said. "So the East Village does have some social challenges that have been in the community for a number of years, well before CMLC was involved."

She said CMLC officials want to understand the solutions HIV Community Link is proposing but haven't yet heard from those who live and work in the community.