Edmonton's supervised consumption sites 'making an impact' in first year

In the months since three supervised consumption sites opened in Edmonton last year, more than 600 overdoses have been reversed. Neighbours have come to view the facilities as a necessary tool in the fight against opioid deaths.

Crime rates are stable in neighbourhoods where sites have opened, police say

Boyle Street Community Services houses one of Edmonton's three supervised consumption sites. The site was closed in fall but will be permanently shut at the end of April. (Josee St-Onge/CBC)

In the months since three supervised consumption sites opened in Edmonton last year, more than 600 overdoses have been reversed.

Neighbours have come to view the facilities as a necessary tool in the fight against opioid deaths.

"I think they're doing really good work of trying to help people," McCauley community league president Greg Lane told CBC News in a recent interview.

"It's about harm reduction. It's not about saying, 'Come and get high here.'"

Three supervised consumption sites opened between March and November 2018 — at Boyle Street Community Services, the George Spady Centre and Boyle McCauley Health Centre.

Each organization operates its own site in collaboration with Access to Medically Supervised Injection Services, a coalition of community groups, medical and academic representatives that won approval from the federal government for the sites to open.

The coalition recently received a three-year extension from Health Canada to continue their work. 

Supervised consumption of drugs in Edmonton has been controversial, and the debate hasn't gone away. The Chinatown and Area Business Association, which had opposed the facilities long before they opened, fought and lost a legal challenge against the services.

More recently, Alberta's new UCP government froze funding for all new consumption sites in the province pending a review of their impacts.

A spokesperson for Health Minister Tyler Shandro said last month the government wants to ensure new sites are "acceptable to the communities based on a detailed socio-economic review of the areas where they're located."

The inside of a supervised consumption site. The often resemble medical clinics, allowing people to take drugs in a monitored and hygienic place. (CBC News)

    With the look and feel of medical clinics, the three supervised consumption sites in Edmonton's inner city are places where people can use drugs in a monitored and hygienic environment.

    Clients must register with a nurse who asks questions about what they're using, their medical history and current health needs. They are also offered other services, such as counselling and addiction treatment.

    Around 1,600 people used the services between March 2018 and June 2019, for a total of almost 58,000 visits.

    Workers strive to offer a safe and welcoming space, said Erica Schoen, Boyle Street's director of supervised consumption services.

    "A big part of our job is to instill hope and move people forward," Schoen said. "The overdose response is a huge part of our of our work, but also just improving people's quality of life."

    Erica Schoen is the director of supervised consumption services for Boyle Street Community Services. (Josee St-Onge/CBC)

    Site users often homeless

    Supervised consumption sites are a tool designed to combat the province's opioid crisis, along with other measures that focus on prevention and treatment.

    In 2018, 789 people died from opioid overdoses in Alberta, and 165 of those deaths happened in Edmonton, according to Alberta Health Services. 

    Fatal opioid related overdoses have occurred throughout Edmonton in 2018, according to Alberta Health Services. (CBC)

    Schoen said people who frequent supervised consumption sites are often homeless and living with mental health issues. Staff help clients look for affordable housing options.

    "A lot of people have cut down their drug use from being housed and just having that stability," she said.

    Sharon Ruyter, a member of the Boyle Street community league, said supervised consumption services haven't had an adverse effect on her neighbourhood.

    "I didn't notice an increase in people around, any increase in crime, or anything like that," Ruyter said. "Things kind of just went as normal, as they usually do."

    She said she sees homeless people as community members who depend on the services offered in the area.

    Sharon Ruyter, who belongs to the Boyle Street community league, says she didn't notice an increase in needle debris after a supervised consumption site opened in her neighbourhood. (Josee St-Onge/CBC)

    Ruyter advocates for more supervised consumption sites to open in other areas of Edmonton with high overdose rates. 

    "Opioid use ... isn't just in our neighbourhood, it's all over the city," she said. "It would be great if other people had those services."

    Lane agrees with Ruyter. He said he'd also like to see more affordable housing throughout the city for people struggling with homelessness.

    Currently, drug users congregate in derelict houses, and large caches of used needles are sometimes found nearby, he said.

    "There is a bigger issue of proper disposal in those kind of areas. I don't think that changed."

    Greg Lane, president of the McCauley community league, views supervised consumption sites as one piece of the puzzle to combat opioid deaths. (Josee St-Onge/CBC)

    The City of Edmonton doesn't track how many needles are found on private property, but city data shows a recent decline in needle debris being found on public land in most areas.

    The Central McDougall and Strathcona neighbourhoods are notable exceptions. Needle debris more than tripled in those areas from 2017 to 2018, information from the city shows. 

    Fewer needles were found on public land in most of Edmonton's neighbourhoods in 2018 compared to the previous year, with a few notable exceptions. (CBC)

    Crime rates haven't gone up

    The Edmonton Police Service says crime rates have remained stable in areas where supervised consumption services have opened, but calls for service are on the rise.

    In the Boyle and McCauley neighbourhoods, calls to police have been trending upward for the last five years.

    "We haven't seen an increase of crime as a result of supervised consumption," said Insp. Dan Jones, who oversees the downtown division.

    Several factors could be causing the increase in calls for service, Jones said, including population growth in the city's downtown, and improved trust between residents and police.

    "More people see the police as a legitimate power holder, and they are satisfied with the service that they're getting, so the calls go up," he said. "That's a possibility."

    Insp. Dan Jones of the Edmonton Police Service says crime rates are stable in neighbourhoods where the supervised consumption sites are located. (CBC)

    Jones said officers work with Boyle Street Community Services and other partner agencies to get addicted people the support they need.

    "We have very similar goals to supervised consumption, and that's helping people become healthy and stay off drugs."

    Without supervised consumption services, addicted people would go back to using drugs in places that aren't as safe, Jones said.

    Communities would suffer if the services were no longer available, said Lane, the McCauley league president.

    "It would put an incredible burden on the entire city, it would be putting an incredible burden on our health services," he said. 

    "There's no doubt that they're making an impact."

    A needle disposal box was installed in a McCauley neighbourhood park in an effort to reduce needle debris. (Josee St-Onge/CBC)


    Josee St-Onge


    Josee St-Onge is a journalist with CBC Edmonton. She has also reported in French for Radio-Canada in Alberta and Saskatchewan.