With lives on the line, London's overdose prevention site opens

After a few short weeks of frantic preparation, London's temporary site for supervised injections opens today at 10 a.m.. Facility supporters say it will save lives in the face of an increasingly deadly opioid crisis.

Location on King Street will operate for six months while search continues for permanent location

A former addict now 25 years clean, Blair Henry is a harm reduction worker at London's temporary overdose prevention site, which opens today. He said the site will save lives and help the city's drug users connect with the services they need. 'The opposite of addiction is connection,' he said. (Andrew Lupton/CBC)

After a few short weeks of frantic preparation, London's temporary overdose prevention site opens today at 10 a.m. and facility supporters say it will save lives in the face of an increasingly deadly opioid crisis. 

The site will operate alongside the Regional HIV/AIDS Connection and the Counterpoint Needle and Syringe Program at 186 King St. 

It will offer medical supervision for drug consumption with the intention of reversing a recent upward trend in opioid-related overdoses in London. 

Blair Henry, a harm reduction worker and former addict now 25 years clean, says the site will add a key component to an existing needle exchange program that already has about 100 clients a day and some 6,000 registered users. 

"The community has rallied around this," said Henry, speaking to CBC News while taking a break from long days spent getting the site ready. "Virtually every community support network in the city is part of this. So we've got a unique opportunity to get people help in a short period of time, we've never had this opportunity before. It's exciting for me because it's real, it's compassionate and it's kind."

Henry says most addicts battle mental health issues and use drugs as a way to feel normal.

While preventing deadly overdoses is the primary goal, he says it's equally important to ensure London drug users can access medical and mental health services. 

"This site allows us to connect people to not only different services that they need but with people that are understanding and caring and can help that person connect and move forward with their life. The opposite of addiction is connection."

Search for permanent site continues

It was put together quickly as the number of fatal drug overdoses in London continue to rise. London saw three fatal overdoses in a five-day stretch in mid-January, the same week the temporary site was announced.

"We wanted to open quickly so there aren't any more lives lost to this," said Shaya Dhinsa of the Middlesex-London Health Unit, one of a handful of local groups contributing employees to the site. 

Dhinsa says bringing the drug use inside will benefit everyone downtown, including merchants. 

"People are already out in the community injecting right now, they are discarding needles they are publicly injecting so this is actually safer ... so that they aren't actively on the street, high."

She says the search is now on to find a permanent location. 

In the meantime, Henry sees reminders everywhere of why the site is so badly needed. 

"We have in the hallway a candle right now burning for somebody and their name posted who has passed."