Mobile supervised consumption site inadequate to meet Lethbridge's needs, critics say

Harm reduction advocates say the provincial government must do more to ensure clients of a beleaguered Lethbridge supervised consumption site have access to care.

Funding halted to ARCHES' site after audit found inappropriate spending, missing money

This vehicle is a temporary overdose prevention service that Alberta Health Services will deploy in Lethbridge. (Alberta Health Services)

Harm reduction advocates say the provincial government must do more to ensure clients of a beleaguered Lethbridge supervised consumption site have access to care.

The Alberta government this week cut off provincial funding to charitable organization ARCHES, which runs the city's only supervised consumption site. An audit found $1.6 million of public money couldn't be accounted for and other provincial funds were inappropriately spent.

The government has called upon Alberta Health Services to be ready with a mobile supervised consumption site when ARCHES can no longer run the service.

However, advocates concerned about care for people with addictions say the motor home-based facility isn't large enough to meet the numbers of clients who use ARCHES.

Petra Schulz, a co-founder and board member of group Moms Stop the Harm, said people may not be willing to line up to use the three supervised injection stations in the mobile site.

"If you make people wait, then they're going to use outside, outside of the location, and then the entire city becomes an unsafe site, and then you have more needle debris, and you have more people dying or needing ambulance rides," she said.

In 2014, Schulz's son Danny died at age 25 from fentanyl poisoning. He was in recovery and had appointments scheduled for treatment when he relapsed, she said.

ARCHES is one of a few sites in Canada that offers clients the option of inhaling drugs in a ventilated booth. That's not available in the van either, Schulz said.

"It's beyond comprehension, the move by this government," she said. "To me it seems heartless and careless. And I know that they are talking about their recovery communities, but that's a capital project that will take years to come online and people are dying today."

Data from ARCHES show that in March, staff were seeing as many as 800 daily visits for supervised consumption. Those numbers dropped substantially after the COVID-19 pandemic prompted a state of public emergency in Alberta. In June, the average number of daily visits was 130. The client did not consume drugs in 14 per cent of those visits.

In the first three months of 2020, six people died in Lethbridge from unintentional fentanyl poisoning, according to a quarterly government report.

Consumption site funding should keep flowing to community, advocate says

Sandra Azocar, executive director of Friends of Medicare, said the government should divert the existing funding to another agency to continue running a bricks-and-mortar supervised consumption site.

She pointed to other instances when government agencies have taken over privately run health services when there were operational or management concerns. Removing funding entirely suggests the move is ideological, she said.

Azocar has questions about the government's level of support for harm reduction efforts like supervised consumption sites.

When in Opposition, now-Premier Jason Kenney said the programs help "addicts inject poison into their bodies" and are no long-term solution to substance abuse.

His United Conservative Party government has instead directed more money and effort into addiction treatment spaces, including "therapeutic communities," where residents can stay for the longer term to cope with other social and behavioural problems.

How the government handles the situation in Lethbridge will be the first test for Associate Minister of Mental Health and Addiction Jason Luan's commitment to help stop needless overdose deaths, Azocar said.

"What we're asking is for him not to leave the clients at Lethbridge ARCHES, who have done nothing to deserve this, to be cast out into the street during a dual health crisis," she said, referring to a rash of opioid deaths and the COVID-19 pandemic.

On Wednesday, Luan said his decision to defund ARCHES was not ideological, but driven by a lack of trust in the organization for reasons spelled out in the audit results.

Recovery coaches part of new plan

ARCHES issued a press release on Thursday stating its board of directors had yet to see a full report on the government audit's findings. The board has also ordered its own, independent audit and hired a consultant to conduct an organizational review, which is ongoing.

"Considering the media information that has been reported in connection to the forensic audit, the ARCHES' board of directors understands that clients, staff and community members will have a lot of questions and very real concerns. We have concerns, too," the press release said.

Jason Luan, associate minister of mental health and addictions, said he was disgusted by the misspending found in an audit of ARCHES' use of public money to run supervised consumption services in Lethbridge. (Audrey Neveu/CBC)

Board members would comment further upon reviewing the findings, the statement said.

It remained unclear on Thursday how long ARCHES will operate the supervised consumption site.

Alberta Health Services has already relocated the mobile clinic to Lethbridge and is ready to take over services when required, spokesperson Kerry Williamson said in an email.

Williamson referred to it as an "overdose prevention service," and said it is considered an essential service during any pandemic restrictions.

The government, meanwhile, is giving a grant to Lethbridge shelter Alpha House to hire three "recovery coaches." A spokesperson for Luan said the workers will build connections with people who are homeless or experiencing addiction and attempt to expedite their participation in recovery programs.

When ready, the mobile site will be located next to Alpha House.

When asked about the ability of the temporary site to cope with the volumes of clients ARCHES has reported serving, Williamson said AHS and Alberta Health are "working to ensure that the demand is met and there is a seamless transition of services."