Emotional meeting sees Calgary councillor called out over 'offensive' consumption site remarks

It was an emotional day at Calgary council, as a committee heard directly from people impacted by the city's only supervised consumption site.

Committee heard possible solutions to public safety concerns in Calgary's Beltline

Coun. Evan Woolley wants to see immediate steps taken to address an increase in police calls to the supervised consumption site in his ward, but he took issue with comments Coun. Sean Chu made calling the site a 'shooting gallery.' (CBC)

It was an emotional day at Calgary council, as a committee heard directly from people impacted by the city's only supervised consumption site.

The committee heard concerns from people afraid to walk in or visit the area due to an increase in drug use and social disorder, and also about the dire need to help those struggling with addiction.

Coun. Sean Chu said drug use and addiction is "a choice," not a disease, and asked those present in the audience to raise their hands if they would like a "shooting gallery" in their neighbourhood — phrasing Coun. Evan Woolley bristled at.

"I found those comments to be offensive and ignorant to all of the challenging and complex work we're doing," Woolley said.

Woolley represents the area where the consumption site at the Sheldon Chumir is located. He also has a personal connection to the battle against the opioid crisis — he lost his brother to an overdose in April.

If harm reduction is going to be successful, people need to feel safer.- Coun. Evan Woolley

Representatives from the city, police, Alberta Health Services and other community partners took part in a panel discussion on public safety concerns during the meeting, which also heard from members of the public.

Calgarian Sherry Crawford told council she fears for her daughter and granddaughter's safety living in the area.

"Why should an addict's desire to take illegal drugs, often associated with criminal behaviour, take precedence over my daughter's desire for a safe neighbourhood in which to live and work and raise her children?" Crawford asked council.

"If harm reduction is going to be successful, people need to feel safer," Woolley said. 

Woolley said he had promised people would feel safe in the neighbourhood once the site was in operation, but that's not how things have panned out, and better wraparound supports are needed to make things work.

"I take this as my own personal failure," he said, adding that a substantial increase in meth use has drastically changed the situation at a site that was originally set up to aid opioid users. 

Opioid overdose deaths have been on the rise in Alberta, with the highest rate of deaths happening in Calgary.

The site allows people to use drugs in a monitored, clean environment as part of a harm reduction model, while offering support like counselling and addiction treatment. 

Between the time the site opened in October 2017 and the end of 2018, it had responded to 802 overdoses involving 228 visitors, and saw more than 54,000 client visits. But a recent police report shows reported crime and calls for service in the area have risen since the site's opening. 

More patrols, daily needle pickups

The head of Calgary's corporate security said some new measures have been taken on how to improve public safety in Central Memorial Park, which is next to the site, and a review is underway on how to further improve the situation, by adding things like more cameras, patrols and better lighting, like there is in Olympic Plaza.

"It's quite a sad indictment I have to put security equipment and guards into a public park and I do not want to ever get to a point where we're putting up large fences," said Owen Key.

Police patrols are also being bolstered in the area, starting Feb. 25, and Alpha House is setting up a team to support people with addiction on the streets in the area. Needle pickup is now happening daily, Woolley said.

However, Jessica McEachern, a former meth user who is now a support worker at the site, said she worries about users feeling stigmatized and not seeking help.

"It's really disheartening. It's people that I see that have come and been using the site from the beginning to now where they feel like they can't trust us anymore because of the increased police presence around," she said.

Recommendations on how to tackle the issues will be brought forward to council on Feb. 25.

With files from Scott Dippel