Downtown merchants seeing up close the need for action on opioid overdoses

As overdoses in Hamilton continue to rise, city staff are preparing a report on the feasibility of a supervised, safer injection site in the city.

Not all are certain safe injection sites are the answer, as city staff prepare 'milestone' feasibility study

Vancouver's Insite clinic in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside was the first safe injection site of its kind. A report about the feasibility of a similar site in Hamilton will go before councillors this December. (Darryl Dyck/Canadian Press)

Downtown Hamilton businesses are intimately acquainted with the city's opioid crisis.

They see its consequences all the time, says Downtown Hamilton BIA Executive Director Kerry Jarvi. There's the used needles strewn around the streets, from people injecting who have nowhere else to go. Then there are the even more dire cries for help.

"Overdoses have actually been far more frequent lately. It's hard when you come to open your business and someone has overdosed on your front door," she said.

The BIA's members aren't sure what the answer is, she said. But the message they delivered when city hall recently asked for their thoughts on safe injection sites was unified around the need for some action.

"It's increasing in astronomical numbers. Something has to be done."

Jarvi — along with representatives of other BIAs and stakeholders like first responders, social workers and neighbourhood groups — were part of the city's consultation process for its upcoming supervised injection site feasibility study.

It's difficult to wait at a bus stop with your family and there's a drug deal going on right in front of you.- Kerry Jarvi, Downtown Hamilton BIA Executive Director 

The study, which Hamilton public health doctor Laura Bourns calls "a significant milestone in the process for the community," is in the midst of being condensed into a report that will go before councillors in December.

It's a document that could help decide whether or not Hamilton applies for a supervised injection site, where people could inject drugs without fear of legal consequences, and under the care of medical professionals. One fact to emerge out of the research is that the city is weighing the possibility of a mobile site, not a static location.

52 Hamiltonians overdosed in 2016

For the week of Sept. 25 to Oct. 1 alone, 31 people in Hamilton sought help at emergency rooms for suspected overdoses, according to the city's opioid information monitoring system. Fifty-two Hamiltonians died of opioid overdose last year — a death rate nearly double the provincial average.

The city says the study will determine whether or not supervised injection sites are a solution in Hamilton, determine how many there should be, and where they should be placed. Then, if approved by council, that information would be presented to Health Canada in a bid for approval of a safer injection site.

Downtown Hamilton BIA Executive Director Kerry Jarvi says that Hamilton's opioid problem is evident for local shop owners. (Adam Carter/CBC)

While the city says it has collected all the data, it's thus far tight lipped on the results. "At this point, I'll leave comment for the board of health report in December," Bourns said.

Part of the process was public consultation — checking with residents and groups to see how they felt about the idea.

Jarvi says she doubts that all businesses in the downtown BIA would have the same viewpoint, but says what people do realize is that Hamilton has a problem, and something has to be done.

If that something is a supervised injection site, she says, then that site has to be properly integrated into the community. Problems arise when that doesn't happen, she says.

"We've had multiple issues with methadone clinics in the past," she said, mostly linked to drug deals and loitering nearby.

"It's difficult to wait at a bus stop with your family and there's a drug deal going on right in front of you."

Finding the right place

Rachel Braithwaite, the executive director of the Barton Village BIA, told CBC News that one of the most important aspects will be getting the location correct. The lower city seems the most logical, she says, but pinpointing exactly where would be difficult given Hamilton's rapid gentrification.

That seems to be one of the reasons one of the options the city is considering is a mobile injection site, which might mitigate that problem.

"Areas are rapidly shifting, and that's complicating things," Braithwaite said. "You would have to put it where the need is."

"At the end of the day, it's a case of needing to put people first."

It remains to be seen if the study will recommend a safer injection site (or sites) in Hamilton, and if so, how councillors will react. Mayor Fred Eisenberger has already gone on record saying he supports the idea.



Adam Carter


Adam Carter is a Newfoundlander who now calls Toronto home. You can follow him on Twitter @AdamCarterCBC or drop him an email at adam.carter@cbc.ca.