London

'This Tent Saves Lives': Community response group ready to help London's drug users

This Tent Saves Lives is a community response group which formed last week, days before the current site’s contract with the province was set to expire Sunday. In a last minute move Friday, the province extended the date to October’s end.

'If the government was going to let these people down, then our community needed to step up' says member

Group members Karen Burton, left, and Blair Henry don shirts that are being sold for the community response. (Hala Ghonaim/CBC)

A grassroots advocacy group is ready to serve London's drug users should the city's temporary overdose prevention site shut down when it's slated to halt operations by the end of the month.

This Tent Saves Lives is a community response group which formed last week, days before the current site's contract with the province was set to expire Sunday. In a last minute move Friday, the province extended the date to October's end.

"If the government was going to let these people down then our community needed to step up," said member Blair Henry, who spearheaded the call to action.

The team of front line volunteers was ready to set up an unsanctioned site — a pop-up tent — in the city's core, filled with sanitary equipment, chairs and tables. The plan was to include services from health care, harm reduction and social service workers.

And though the group let out a sigh of relief over the weekend, its work is only just beginning, gearing up for the provincial response to supervised consumption facilities in London.

Community comes together

Last week, Henry turned to Facebook with a plea "to make sure that the people who inject drugs in this city are not forgotten."

Shirts that read "the courage to do what is right, safe consumption sites save lives" are being sold for a minimum of $20. (Hala Ghonaim/CBC)

Messages of the support piled up quickly, he said, and soon enough, a community group of 200 — and growing — formed.

Now, "we have to help use this public momentum to inform Doug Ford that there is support for this project," he said.

Though it's still in its premature stages, the group will continue to meet on a weekly basis, awaiting the government's decision over the current temporary site.

"There will be an overdose prevention site of some sort that will be erected should that funding go but we are going to make sure that that message gets out so we can avoid that," said Henry.

"I'm sad that we might need to do this but I'm glad that so many people came together," added member Karen Burton.

To prepare for the tent and the funds that come with it, the group is selling T-shirts that read "The courage to do what is right, safe consumption sites save lives."

The first batch of 50 flew off the shelves Saturday, and the second batch of 60 has already been claimed. Henry said 300 shirts, that cost a minimum of a $20 in donations, are on their way. Their printing costs have been donated by the Antler River Press.

Kits filled with equipment are laid out for people using injection drugs at London's Temporary Overdose Prevention Site. (Amanda Margison, CBC News)

The group is also in the process of assigning leadership positions to help direct operations, manage volunteers and handle public relations.

The group is looking to advocate about the current services in place to help people looking to consume or inject drugs.

What's next?

The clock is ticking.

The permanent sites, proposed for 241 Simcoe St. and 446 York St. need provincial funding support.

The province said the decision whether or not to operate a permanent facility must not be rushed while it continues to conduct its review.

"I think [the government] is being careful. I think that they want to look at the evidence but I don't know what more evidence they can look at. The evidence is there," said Burton.

"Nobody should have to die for health care," she said.

"Harm reduction services save lives … it is about helping people move towards a healthier place," added Henry.

For now, the group awaits a decision before the end of the month.

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