Future more clear for supervised injection sites in Hamilton

Supervised injection sites in Hamilton have a more hopeful —although still uncertain future, after the Ontario government announced Monday it will continue to fund supervised drug consumption sites.

Ford government will fund a maximum of 21 sites in Ontario

The single overdose prevention site in Hamilton has seen about 350 visits per month, says a director at Hamilton Public Health. (Darryl Dyck/Canadian Press)

Supervised injection sites in Hamilton have a more promising — although still uncertain — future, after the provincial government announced Monday it will fund and rebrand a total of 21 supervised drug consumption sites in Ontario.

"I think it's a good news and a cautious news at the same time," said Denise Brooks, executive director at the Hamilton Urban Core Community Health Centre. The centre operates the only place in Hamilton where drug users can inject under professional supervision, in partnership with the Shelter Health Network.

They are being cautious until they hear more details, Brooks said, but the ministry was clear on Monday that there would be "no interruption" for sites currently providing services.

As she understands, they will not have to shut down in the time gap before government approves rebranded sites.

Hamilton's only overdose prevention site is temporary and its funding was set to run out at the end of November. 

Questions swirled in August, when the government said it was "pausing" approvals for new overdose prevention sites during a review. Proponents have said one safe injection site is not enough in the city, where 87 people died from opioid overdoses last year.

Premier Doug Ford has previously said he's "dead against" supervised injection sites. 

But Health Minister Christine Elliot said Monday that they will continue to fund sites, although they are rebranding them to have a "new focus" on helping users receive treatment and get rehabilitated. Existing sites will have to reapply to continue operating, Elliot said, and there will be no new funding for approved locations.

January is when approved sites can start transitioning to the new model, the ministry said in a press release. 

Brooks said they will apply to provide safe injection services more permanently under the government's new plan. In the meantime, she expects to hear from ministry staff soon about how to move forward in the interim. 

'A need' for sites in Hamilton

Two other agencies in Hamilton had already applied for a more permanent, supervised consumption site that would offer healthcare services and help people get into treatment, said Michelle Baird, director of epidemiology, wellness and communicable disease at Hamilton Public Health. 

When deciding the 21 Ontario sites that get approved, Baird hopes the province will look at need—"and Hamilton certainly has a need for this type of service."

Proponents say one safe injection site is not enough in Hamilton. Last year, the city's death rate from opioid overdoses was 72 per cent above the provincial average. (CBC)

Last year, 87 people in Hamilton died from opioid overdoses, the city says—72 per cent higher than the provincial average.

Hamilton's current overdose prevention site has seen 350 visits per month, said Baird.

The continued funding is positive news, Baird said, and an announcement "we've been waiting for."

New model similar to current sites

It doesn't look like the government's new model is a significant shift from what the Hamilton site is already doing, Brooks said, in terms of offering healthcare services and helping people get to treatment.

She said it's great safe injection services will remain available, but it's hard to comment without knowing more details.

The Progressive Conservatives are renaming safe injection sites "Consumption and Treatment Services," which will replace the supervised consumption services and overdose prevention sites that currently exist. 

Provincial Health Minister Christine Elliot announced the government would cap the number of safe injection sites at 21 across Ontario. (CBC)

The current overdose prevention sites are temporary, harm-reduction sites where drug-users can inject under supervision, and access harm reduction supplies. 

Supervised consumption sites are more permanent sites, approved by the federal government.

All approved sites are expected to be in place by April 2019, the government said.

There will not be any new funding for the approved sites, the minister said, and most existing sites already comply with the new plan.


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