Red Deer supervised drug consumption site facing backlash, online harassment

Staff at Turning Point Society of Alberta say negative messages are filling up their Facebook page and inbox.

The centre saw 4,500 site visits and 151 reversed overdoses last month

The overdose prevention site, operated by Turning Point Society of Central Alberta, is in the parking lot of Safe Harbour. (Trevor Wilson/CBC)

Staff at Turning Point Society of Alberta, the centre running Red Deer's downtown supervised consumption site, say they're being bullied and harassed online. 

Since the overdose prevention site opened last October, Sarah Fleck, the centre's clinical manager, said staff have seen a gradual increase of negative comments and public backlash targeted at clients on their Facebook page and via email.

The city has called on the province for more investment in policing and needle debris clean-up. (Trevor Wilson/CBC)

"A lot of the comments are directed toward the clients we work with, saying things like they basically should be left to die or fentanyl should be given out freely so that everybody can just take care of themselves," Fleck said.

"It makes the staff feel discouraged and disillusioned about the work they chose to do and they're passionate about doing." 

A majority of the negative comments are centred around people's concern for safety and needle debris in the area, which Fleck claimed were "valid." 

"At the same time, the overdose prevention site opened, the drop-in shelter also increased their hours and we're open for 24 hours [a day], so there is an accumulation of things that have resulted in an increase in traffic to this area," she said. 

Help from RCMP 

Fleck has been meeting regularly with Red Deer RCMP staff sergeant Jeff McBeth to address safety concerns for community members, staff and clients. 

"It's new territory for us because people going there are in possession of illegal drugs and we know they're going there to consume them, but they're going there to consume them with nurses and staff nearby," McBeth said.  

Community members who use the overdose prevention site select their supplies, including needles, before using one of the four booths for an hour. (Trevor Wilson/CBC)

"I think Turning Point has done a pretty good job going public with what they're doing and some of the successes that they've had.

"They need to keep doing that because there are successes, whether you agree or disagree, like it or don't like it."   

McBeth said officers from the RCMP downtown detachment patrol the site regularly. 

In addition, Fleck said the centre organizes needle clean-up routines every morning and has hired a security company on site 24 hours a day to maintain safety. 

"We're very open to having those conversations with community members and business owners, just trying to provide some education and listen to their concerns because we want to make the community better for everybody as well," Fleck said.  

Safety as 'first order of business,' says mayor 

Red Deer mayor Tara Veer said the city has called on the province for more investment in policing and needle debris clean-up. 

"We do need elevated enforcement in the area to respond to those safety concerns both on the workers and in terms of the general public," she said.

"The first order of business needs to be the safety of RCMP members, the safety of Turning Point workers, the safety of those using the site and those adjacent to the site, as well as local businesses.

"I don't think that we'll see an improvement in terms of the community conversation until people feel safe. Safety is the number one priority of the city at this stage." 

Veer said the city also asked the province to fund more "integration of services in the community" and the province is still reviewing their request. 

"We're asking the [provincial] government to fully implement our community drug and alcohol response plan and not just have one service alone," she said.

Fleck said the overdose prevention site had more than 4,500 visits last month and staff reversed 151 overdoses.

Ministry of Health did not respond to an interview request.