Lowertown residents balk at pop-up drug tent in park

People living near a pop-up drug use site in Ottawa's Lowertown neighbourhood want the tents moved — and the future home of Ottawa's first sanctioned supervised injection site may have a solution.

Supervised drug use site set up in Raphael Brunet Park Friday

Overdose Prevention Ottawa opened this tent site intended to give people a safe place to use drugs in Lowertown's Raphael Brunet Park on Aug. 25, 2017. (Matthew Kupfer/CBC)

People living near a pop-up drug use site in Ottawa's Lowertown neighbourhood want the tents moved — and the future home of Ottawa's first sanctioned supervised injection site may have a solution.

On Friday, Overdose Prevention Ottawa set up a space in Raphael Brunet Park for people to use drugs under supervision. Organizers described the tents as "first aid" for people at risk of overdosing.

The unsanctioned "overdose prevention site," as it's being called, follows the lead of similar initiatives in Toronto and Vancouver. 

The tents have tables, chairs and supplies of naloxone — an opioid overdose antidote — and is staffed by volunteers who are able to support drug users and help them in case of an emergency.

'Not where the demand is'

However, some nearby residents say the site — which has not been sanctioned by Health Canada — needs to go.

"It's in the middle of a family neighbourhood. It's not where the demand is," said Michel Vallée, a former vice-president of the Lowertown Community Association who lives a short walk from the site.

"It's also right behind a community centre that is extremely [well] used by youth and adults."

Lowertown resident Michel Vallée is spearheading community opposition to a pop-up drug use site in Raphael Brunet Park. (Guillaume Dumont/CBC)

Vallée said he and a handful of his neighbours plan to raise the issue at the next community association meeting and have already shared their concerns with Coun. Mathieu Fleury, who represents the area. 

"We're not against the principle of a safe injection site," said Vallée. "But there's a legal way to do it, and a good medical way to do it. And I don't think this is the way to do it."

Fleury was unavailable for comment Saturday.

No overdoses first night

In an email Saturday, Marilou Gagnon, an associate professor with the University of Ottawa's school of nursing and the main spokesperson for Overdose Prevention Ottawa, declined a request for an interview. She said the group needed to "focus on training and operations" over the weekend.

However, she did tell CBC News that 11 people used the site during a two-hour period Friday evening, and promised to provide an update on Monday.

No one overdosed on Friday, she said in the email. She called the first day of the site's operation an "outstanding success."

Gagnon had previously said that her group relied on the expertise of outreach workers in choosing Raphael Brunet Park to open the site because it is near the epicentre of Ottawa's drug using population.

Sandy Hill CHC offers up parking lot

The site popped-up just as the Sandy Hill Community Health Centre, about 15 blocks away, is in the final stages of opening its own federally-approved supervised injection site. 

David Gibson, the centre's executive director, told CBC News that, on Saturday morning, he had offered Overdose Prevention Ottawa the parking lot of the centre's Nelson Street location as an alternate to the park.

In many respects, they've made a very good political point.- David Gibson, executive director of the Sandy Hill Community Health Centre

"We own the property. It is part of our health centre's physical site. So that would give them also an option that would prevent any issues related to bylaw infractions or potential police intervention," Gibson said.

Ottawa police officers were at the park on Friday observing, but mostly left the workers alone. Police told organizers that someone had filed a bylaw complaint, claiming the unsanctioned site was operating without a permit.

Overdose Prevention Ottawa said they had no plans to relocate Saturday evening.

Although he hadn't toured the Raphael Brunet Park site, Gibson said he had seen enough photos and videos of the tents in operation to allay some of the concerns he had expressed before the site had opened.

"This isn't about us saying we don't support them. In fact, quite the opposite — we want to support them. And I think, in many respects, they've made a very good political point," Gibson said.

"The sense is people are dying or overdosing needlessly because we don't have easy access to sites like this."

Sandy Hill Community Health Centre executive director David Gibson said he's asked Health Canada to speed up the opening of Ottawa's first supervised injection site. (CBC)

Request to speed up process

After years of talks, the Sandy Hill Community Health Centre received approval from Health Canada in late July for their supervised injection site.

The initial plan was to open the site in October, but Gibson said Saturday the centre was now trying to expedite the process after seeing Overdose Prevention Ottawa's site in action.

Health Canada's approval is conditional upon a "final site inspection," he said. The centre is trying to get the go-ahead to open, and have that inspection carried out later — similar to what Toronto Public Health officials were able to accomplish after a similar pop-up site opened in that city's downtown earlier this month.

The Sandy Hill centre is also trying to speed up provincial approval of both its operating budget and the cost of its renovations, he said.

If everything falls into place, Ottawa's first supervised injection site could open within two weeks, he said.

With files from Guillaume Dumont and Matthew Kupfer