Take a look inside Hamilton's first overdose prevention site

The doors to Hamilton's overdose prevention site officially open tonight. Here's a look inside.

People over the age of 16 who aren't intoxicated or having a medical emergency can use the site

Hamilton's first overdose prevention site will officially open Tuesday at 8 p.m. (Dan Taekema/CBC)

Behind a quiet side door surrounded by graffiti at the Hamilton Urban Core Community Health Centre is the first city's overdose prevention site (OPS), where people will be able to inject, snort and take drugs orally starting at 8 p.m.

Visitors will find a one-room setup with a desk lamp, sharps disposal box and a mirror — so people who inject into drugs into their jugular can see what they're doing — set out on a metal table in front of three stations.

The official opening of small, simple space marks a major step in the city's move toward harm reduction as a way of treating addiction, by providing a physical location where addicts can use drugs under supervision and access clean needles and other safe injection tools.  

The site, which will be run by the Shelter Health Network in partnership with Hamilton Urban Core CHC, comes after it was approved by the province and given enough funding for six months back in May.  

A team of advocates has been fighting for months to set up a site to respond to the city's growing opioid crisis, which Dr. Jill Wiwcharuk said includes 87 people who died of opioid poisoning in 2017, compared to 52 the year before.

People who want to access the OPS will enter through these side doors at the Hamilton Urban Core Community Health Centre at 71 Rebecca Street. (Dan Taekema/CBC)

She added the site is already anticipating a lot of users — so much so that they've included timers at each of the site's three stations to encourage people to get up after about 20 minutes.

The floor behind the chairs will have resuscitation mats, incase anyone overdoses. Equipment such as needles, alcohol swabs and, of course, Naloxone, are contained in a cabinet nearby.

The site features three seats where people can inject, snort or take drugs orally. (Dan Taekema/CBC)

On the other side of the small partition that separates the one-room setup, is the "chill out room" which has three comfy black chairs where people can be monitored after using drugs before heading home.

The site will be staffed by at least three people at all times, one of whom will be a doctor or nurse.

Wiwcharuk said Hamilton's OPS will be "special" because most of the 30-odd staff members who have signed up have already been working with the drugs users in the community.

"What we have tried to create here is a space that when people come in they're going to see people they already know in the community," explained Wiwcharuk. "They're going to recognize our faces and they're going to trust us already."

'We won't be checking IDs'

The doctor added anyone age 17 or older can use the site and staff won't be checking IDs.

"We're not looking for OHIP cards, we're not looking for driver's licenses. We wouldn't have much business if we did that."

Here are the eligibility requirements to use the OPS:

  • Users must be willing to sign the Consent Form for emergency treatment (first time they come only)
  • Users must be willing to adhere to the OPS Code of Conduct
  • Users must not be exhibiting overly aggressive behaviour
  • Users must not be overly intoxicated
  • Users must not have a medical condition that needs immediate attention

Those requirements don't bar pregnant women from using the site, according to Hamilton Urban Core executive director Denise Brooks.

"The risk has to be that you're going to use anyway, so if you're going to use then at least be safe and stay alive," she said.

A container with syringes, alcohol wipes and Naoloxone kits sits behind the table where people can use drugs under supervision. (Dan Taekema/CBC)

The site is just two blocks from Hamilton police headquarters, but Wiwcharuk and Brooks don't anticipate any problems.

Staff have been meeting with police regularly to discuss the site and Brooks said Urban Core already has a great relationship with the service — some officers already often stop by to say hi and drink coffee.

But that doesn't mean staff haven't considered what impact police could have on the site.

Wiwcharuk said any 911 calls about overdoses will come with a request that police not attend, and any time an emergency call is made, people using the site will be warned police could be arriving, in case they want to leave.

"Certainly our service users are not going to be overly happy if there's a large police presence and that could compromise the whole operation."

The "chill out room" has three comfy seats where people will be monitored after using drugs to ensure they're safe to head home. (Dan Taekema/CBC)

Urban Core already has security protocols and training in place, said Brooks, so she's not concerned about the safety or concerns from some, including police chief Eric Girt, that the site could attract drug dealers.

"The chief now isn't as familiar [with Urban Core]," she said. "So part of it is educating him too."

Wiwcharuk said she believes the biggest advocates for safety and security at the site will actually be the users themselves.

"They are going to take ownership of this place. They are going to be helping police themselves because they are protecting this."

Dr. Jill Wiwcharuk, left, and Dr. Robin Lennox, work with Hamilton's Shelter Health Network and helped set up the OPS. (Dan Taekema/CBC)

The site will be open every Monday, Wednesday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday from 6 p.m. to 11 p.m. and on Tuesdays and Thursdays from 8 p.m. to 11 p.m.

About the Author

Dan Taekema

Dan Taekema is a reporter/editor with CBC Hamilton. Email: daniel.taekema@cbc.ca