'One death after the other' while search continues for overdose prevention site

An application for a temporary overdose prevention site in a trailer in downtown Hamilton has been held because of building permit and zoning requirements.

Site would be staffed by 3 people, including at least one medical health professional

Here's what an injection kit looks like. (Rafferty Baker/CBC)

Dr. Jill Wiwcharuk says her patients are dying at an unprecedented rate as a team of local agencies scrambles to find a site to host a temporary overdose prevention site.

The doctor is lead physician for the Shelter Health Network, which is co-ordinating the effort and she works with people living with addictions and substance abuse every day.

"We had a two-week period where we had three deaths of our patients and on top of that, I responded to the overdose of a young woman in her 20s that happened outside my clinic and she required seven doses or Narcan before she started breathing on her own again," Wiwcharuk said.

Meanwhile, an application for the temporary site that was sent to the province weeks ago has been held up after the agencies learned plans to place a trailer in a municipal parking lot at 76 John Street North had to be halted because of building permit and zoning requirements.

The hope was to get the temporary site up and running quickly while the city pursues the more involved process of getting approval for permanent site. London, Ont. opened a temporary site in February, the first in Ontario.

Parking lot zoned for parkland

In an email to CBC News, Jorge Caetano with city's Building Division, explained a building permit is required for a trailer that's not on wheels. The lot where the trailer was supposed to be park has also recently been zoned for a community park.

But, there is a general provision within the city's zoning by-law that allows the municipality or a government agency to "use any land or to erect a building for the purposes of public service," he added.

The Network is not a provincial agency, so the Ministry of Emergency Operations or the municipality would either have to operate the site or zoning for the parking lot would need to change.

Local agencies wanted to put a temporary overdose prevention site in this parking lot at 76 John Street North. (Google Maps)

That means the network of agencies, which includes the AIDS Network, public health, Good Shepherd Centres, Wesley Urban Ministries, CMHA, the Aboriginal Health Centre, EMS and Marchese Pharmacy, are now appealing to the public for a new location.

The site will have to be somewhere in the area flanked by Queen Street, Barton Street , Ferguson Avenue and Main Street — the location identified by the city's supervised injection site study released in 2017.

Search for a storefront

A storefront with proper zoning would be ideal so staff can get to helping people as soon as possible, said Wiwcharuk.

"It's just one death after the other," she said. "Some of [my patients] have been to five funerals in the last month. It is very much a crisis."

 'People are dying on the streets.'- Allan Whittle, Good Shepherd

The rate of opiod-related deaths in Hamilton has continued climbing in recent years. Between January and October 2017 there were 70 confirmed and five probable deaths linked to the drugs, compared to 41 during the same period the year before.

"Quite literally, people are dying on the streets," said Allan Whittle from the Good Shepherd. "I used the analogy of the Grim Reaper. You just don't know when, where or who is going to be taken from us."

The application for a temporary site is separate from efforts to bring a supervised injection site to the city.

The temporary site would operate for six months, with three staff on-site at all times, including one health-care professional.

Closing the gap

Dr. Elizabeth Richardson, the city's medical officer of health, said opening a temporary site would save lives, while cutting down on the number of discarded needles littering Hamilton's streets.

She said it's been "a bit more of a challenge" to open the overdose prevention site than officials expected, but the city is taking on opioid deaths using naloxone and needle exchanges.

"We would like to get this gap closed and ultimately if it takes us a little bit longer to get it up and running in a way that's safe for the people who are going to use it … and staff within it and safe for our community, that's the process we're going to have to go through."

About the Author

Dan Taekema

Dan Taekema is a reporter/editor with CBC Hamilton. Email: daniel.taekema@cbc.ca