Manitoba

Opposition to supervised injection sites misinformed, old-fashioned: former social worker

A former social worker who helps house men with addictions says the Manitoba Progressive Conservatives are making a mistake by opposing a supervised consumption site in downtown Winnipeg.

Founder of Street Links St. Boniface says 'in the trenches,' it's clear Winnipeg needs a safe injection site

Marion Willis, founder and director of St. Boniface Street Links, said there's no question people with addictions in Winnipeg would benefit from a supervised injection site. (Trevor Brine/CBC)

A former social worker who helps house men with addictions says Manitoba's governing Progressive Conservatives are making a mistake by questioning a supervised injection site in downtown Winnipeg.

Marion Willis, founder and director of St. Boniface Street Links, says it's both old-fashioned and wrong-headed to dispute the lifesaving role a supervised site to take drugs could play in the inner city.

"I think that our ministers are ill-informed. I think that they are older individuals who have not kept themselves current with emerging issues," she said.

"Those of us walking in the trenches, dealing with this every day, know that a safe injection site is the way to go."

Street Links runs Morberg House, which has helped more than 200 men with addictions get off the street since it opened in 2016.

Manitoba Health Minister Kelvin Goertzen has expressed skepticism about a Main Street Project proposal to turn the old Mitchell Fabrics building on Main Street into Manitoba's first supervised injection site.

Goertzen referenced a Manitoba Health report that found 74 per cent of people who die from overdoses took the drugs at home, and said he questions whether people would use a downtown clinic.

"Those who are dealing perhaps with an opioid addiction, they won't necessarily get on a bus and travel to a supervised injection site," he said.

'Government has got to step up'

Willis argues there are plenty of clients within walking distance of the Mitchell Fabrics building on Main Street and Logan Avenue who would benefit from being able to take drugs surrounded by health professionals who could reverse or manage an accidental overdose.

"This government has got to step up and they've got to realize that they're living in the past, and they're not understanding what our current realities are," she said.

The same Manitoba Health report referenced by Goertzen found that between Jan. 1, 2017 and Sept. 30, 2017, the largest numbers of patients arriving at Winnipeg emergency rooms after suspected overdoses lived downtown (16 per cent of all cases) and in Point Douglas (14 per cent).

Manitoba's health minister is once again rejecting the idea of a safe drug injection site. The Main Street Project wants to convert the old Mitchell Fabrics building on Main Street into a facility for the homeless. Kelvin Goertzen says what works in Vancouver, where people with drug addictions gather, doesn't work in Winnipeg. 0:55

Goertzen said he is not convinced a supervised site would be the best investment for taxpayer dollars.

"We need to look at the resources that we have.… We haven't seen the evidence in Manitoba that the best use of those scarce resources would be a supervised injection site."

Several cities in Canada now have supervised injection sites. Edmonton opened its second site on Monday — the first injection site in North America to open in an acute care hospital.

Advocates say the location prevents people with addictions from getting high in stairwells or locked bathrooms, reducing the risk of overdose death.

Dr. Hakique Virani is a public health physician who treats patients with addictions in Alberta. He said it is "absurd" to require Manitoba-specific evidence before moving ahead with a supervised injection site here.

"If we were waiting for medical and public health intervention data that applied to every geographic location, Winnipeg would have nothing. Large studies of any medical intervention tend to take place in large academic centres and then the rest of us benefit from those studies."

There is no doubt, Virani said, supervised injection sites reduce the chance of death from overdoses. No one in Canada has ever died at a supervised injection site, he said.

The spaces do more than provide supervision, he said — they can also serve as a place to reach some of society's most vulnerable people. Some provide clients with food, addictions counselling and access to housing, Virani said.

"It gives us a chance to work with folks that are struggling with substances."

Along with building a supervised injection site, Main Street Project plans to create a managed-alcohol program for chronically addicted alcoholics, 10 long-term beds for meth detox and 120 more regular shelter beds.

Darcy Savage lives at the Salvation Army, right next door to the old Mitchell Fabrics building. The Main Street Project wants to convert that building into a state-of-the-art facility for homeless people. Savage says it's desperately needed based on what she finds in the back lane. 1:58

Corrections

  • An earlier version of this article referred to Marion Willis as a social worker. She is in fact a former social worker.
    Apr 12, 2018 11:53 AM CT

With files from Shane Gibson