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'People will die needlessly,' advocacy group says, as closure date looms for ARCHES

ARCHES will cease to offer safe consumption service, including needle debris pickup in Lethbridge, at the end of August.

Lethbridge's only supervised consumption site closing after Alberta government cuts off funding

Friends of Medicare, a non-profit society based in Edmonton, said the ARCHES site was not only a safe place to consume drugs, but also offered other wraparound supports. (Chad Hipolito/The Canadian Press)

ARCHES will cease to offer safe consumption service, including needle debris pickup in Lethbridge, at the end of August.

The Alberta government cut off provincial funding to charitable organization ARCHES this week, which runs the city's only supervised consumption site.

The province announced in July that it was cutting off funding to the charitable organization after an audit found $1.6 million of public money couldn't be accounted for and other provincial funds were inappropriately spent.

In a statement dated Aug. 11, the board of directors at ARCHES confirmed its final date of operation.

"ARCHES sent notice to the neighbouring businesses of the SCS, as it was important for them to know that needle debris pick-up and walking outreach would not be provided by ARCHES as of Aug. 31," it reads.

The statement goes on to say that ARCHES will continue to work with Alberta Health on the wind-down of services and to ensure a smooth transition, but does not have details on the future plans for supervised consumption or needle debris pickup.

Alberta Health is ensuring a smooth transition from the bricks-and-mortar site to a mobile response unit.

Advocacy group fears increase in overdoses

In a statement, Kassandra Kitz, press secretary for the associate minister of mental health and addiction said, the mobile overdose prevention site operated by Alberta Health Services will be operational beginning Aug. 17.

"[It will allow] for the transition of clients due to ARCHES closing their facility following a financial audit finding significant abuse of taxpayer dollars, unaccounted for funds, and mismanagement of the organisation," the statement reads.

"The site will work with local partners, such as the Lethbridge Shelter and Resource Centre, with a heavy emphasis on access to recovery-oriented supports, such as transitional shelter, detox and referral to treatment."

Friends of Medicare, a non-profit society based in Edmonton, said the ARCHES site was not only a safe place to consume drugs, but also offered other wraparound supports.

Sandra Azocar, the executive director of Friends of Medicare, said she fears clients will fall through the cracks and worries about an increase in overdose deaths.

"Those services were there to ensure that people were not overdosing, to ensure that people were able to get their foot in the door, to have access to other resources, so that they can get on that path to recovery. But they need to be alive in order to access those services," Azocar said.

Province says needle pickup will continue

ARCHES opened the site in February 2018.

The organisation's data from this March shows as many as 800 people were using ARCHES services in a single day.

Some neighbouring businesses complained it brought crime, social disorder and drug paraphernalia to their doorsteps.

But Friends of Medicare said taking ARCHES away will make it far more difficult to curb social disorder and contain needle debris.

"For us, the loss of this service is very concerning. We are going to see a lot more people engaging in the use of drugs in the backstreets and public restrooms, stairwells, parks and alleyways," Azocar said.

"So those people who were worried about social disorder in their community have just turned their entire city into an unsupervised consumption site, and people are not going to be anywhere close to getting the help when they are overdosing."

The province said needle debris pickup will be continued, and may be increased in response to community concerns, and also that it believes the mobile consumption unit will be able to meet the demand for service.

"We will do everything we need to do to ensure the community does not see an increase in needle debris," said Kitz in a statement to CBC News.

"Based on the utilization data we've received from the current supervised consumption services operator, the capacity will be sufficient to serve all ARCHES clients."

City not involved in decision

The city wasn't involved in the decision to shut down ARCHES, as it received provincial grants.​​​​​​

CBC News received a statement from Lethbridge Mayor Chris Spearman, who said the health and wellness of the community is the city's continued priority, but adds the decision was a provincial one.

"We understand there are concerns from businesses and from community members around the changes related to supervised consumption, needle pickup and outreach services in Lethbridge," reads a portion of the statement. 

"Alberta Health has declared their commitment to move toward a treatment and recovery model of care for our community, which we believe will address many social issues in our city. The City of Lethbridge will support our provincial health partners so they can provide the best care possible to our residents."

Alberta Health will be commencing its mobile site beginning Aug. 17, which is meant to provide a few weeks to transition before ARCHES closes for good.

With files from Janet French

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