At Canada's former busiest supervised consumption site, anxiety over what comes next
Advocates say they worry new ID requirements could lead to further death in the community
Just a little more than a year ago, funding was cut off and the doors were closed at the charitable organization known as ARCHES, the only supervised consumption site in Lethbridge, Alta. — and advocates say swelling need in the community, paired with looming provincial changes, is leading to crisis.
Since the closure of ARCHES, a motor home-based consumption site has been parked on the side of the road next to Lethbridge's shelter, situated off a side street located just north of the Crowsnest Highway.
That mobile site was launched as a temporary solution, Alberta Health said in July 2020, intended to fill gaps left by ARCHES while longer-term solutions were settled on.
But in the interim, at Lethbridge's Galt Gardens park, the wait for those solutions are being acutely felt.
The park, located in the city's downtown, has become a hotspot for overdose deaths in the community over the past few years.
"We're a fairly small and tight-knit community. The trauma ripples through a community, and makes it hard for everyone to recover from this," said Kaley Ann Beaudoin, a founding member of the Lethbridge Overdose Prevention Society (LOPS) and former employee of ARCHES.
According to provincial data on drug poisoning deaths, Lethbridge's death rate was 83.9 per 100,000 person years in May 2021 — more than double the provincial average of 32.4 per 100,000 person years.
During its time in operation, ARCHES provided 13 booths where people who use drugs could inject, snort and swallow drugs or utilize two smoke rooms. The mobile site sees Alberta Health Services provide three booths for people who use drugs, according to Kerry Williamson, a spokesperson with AHS.
The switch has led to a decrease in terms of levels of service and access to care, Beaudoin said. But looming ID requirements at supervised consumption sites could further exacerbate the problem, she said.
New ID requirements
Earlier this week, advocates said the provincial government delayed new licensing requirements for supervised consumption sites until Jan. 3, 2022.
The new ID requirements have provoked concern from critics. Amid a spike of drug overdoses in Edmonton, public health experts at the University of Alberta released research that found that only 36 per cent of drug users would access supervised consumption sites should they be required to provide ID.
"Consistently, throughout the province, when these questions were asked, we find that drug users are least willing to access supervised consumption sites and programs if required to show personal identification in order to qualify for the program," said Cameron Wild, a professor in the school of public health at the University of Alberta and one of the authors of the study.
The province said that while other new provincial rules are still set to take effect Sept. 30, the later date for providing ID has "always been the case" — though at least one Edmonton health centre running a supervised consumption site said it had first formally heard of the extension on Tuesday afternoon.
LOPS and the advocacy group Moms Stop the Harm Society are the two groups suing the Alberta government over the provincial licensing requirements.
"These aren't guidelines. They're not going to help people stay safe. They're going to do the opposite," said Kym Porter, who works with Moms Stop the Harm. "So, [we] got involved because we speak for those who don't have a voice."
A spokesperson with the Alberta government said the province was implementing "quality standards for overdose prevention services to ensure community safety and improve service quality."
"Alberta's government will not be deterred in our mission to improve service quality and community safety," reads a statement attributed to Mike Ellis, the associate minister of addictions and mental health.
"It is unfortunate that advocates for supervised consumption services are opposed to ensuring they meet basic quality standards to integrate into the health-care system."
Lethbridge's Indigenous population
Of particular concern to advocates in Lethbridge are the number of overdose deaths taking place among the community's Indigenous population.
"Right now, we are looking at the amount of trauma that is being brought up around residential schools," Beaudoin said.
"It is not only the people who have died, but also the people who are still alive and are survivors. Trauma is one of the number one indicators of whether or not someone will experience addiction when they're using drugs."
Timothy Slaney, director of LOPS and a former ARCHES employee, wrote in a sworn affidavit that approximately 70 per cent of substance users accessing harm reduction services are Indigenous.
"They are frequently without the care and support that non-Indigenous substance users in Lethbridge have," Slaney wrote. "Based on my experience, they are more likely to experience fatal and non-fatal overdoses, and be subject to a range of harms associated with street-sourced substance use."
A report published by the Alberta government in June said First Nations people died seven times more frequently than non-First Nations people due to opioid poisonings during the first six months of 2020, adding that people in Lethbridge and southern Alberta were particularly vulnerable.
A difficult year
Back at Galt Gardens park, it's growing dark. The SAGE Clan patrol, a group that specializes in helping the homeless and those who suffer from addiction, is setting out for the night.
It's been a difficult year, says Mikala Dalton, team lead with SAGE Clan.
Not only are the overdoses becoming more violent, but seeing the constant trauma and death — especially among those the group has grown close to — is weighing on the team.
"For people not here, it's difficult to describe," Dalton said. "Think about what you see in your city … times ten."
CBC Calgary has launched a Lethbridge bureau to help tell your stories from southern Alberta with reporter Joel Dryden. Story ideas and tips can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org.