Group looks to fast-track supervised injection trailer for homeless

Ottawa Inner City Health wants to amend its application for a supervised injection site to offer the services 24 hours a day from a trailer in the parking lot of the Shepherds of Good Hope shelter.

Ottawa Inner City Health seeks approval for expedited plan, says lives are at stake

Ottawa Inner City Health Executive Director Wendy Muckle says there's a dire need for a safe service before winter arrives. (Michel Aspirot/CBC)

Ottawa Inner City Health wants to amend its application for a supervised injection site in the hopes of offering the services 24 hours a day from a trailer in the parking lot of the Shepherds of Good Hope shelter.

The health care group, which works with the chronically homeless, is the latest group in the city to try to expedite plans to offer supervised injections to drug users because of what they describe as the mounting death toll from opioids.

For us it's like operating in a war zone.- Wendy Muckle, Ottawa Inner City Health

Ottawa Inner City Health formally applied to Health Canada in February for permission to run a supervised injection site. That approval has not yet been granted, and in the interim, "the world has changed entirely," according to executive director Wendy Muckle.

"The homeless population, and the population of people injecting in public, has tripled, quadrupled in a very short period of time," Muckle said.

Now, with winter fast approaching, they want to get their trailer up and running by the end of October.

"For us it's like operating in a war zone...our nurses are really running the blocks around the Shepherds of Good Hope day in and day out, in addition to the work they're doing inside saving people's lives."

Muckle said she's aware of three fatal overdoses in the last week alone.

No Health Canada approval, no supervised injection

Drug users would get fresh needles from shelter staff, who would then contact a nurse inside the trailer to see if any of the eight proposed client spaces were available. Users would be supervised in the secure trailer while injecting drugs, and permitted to stay afterward.

But the plan rests on approval from Health Canada. Muckle also hopes the province will come up with funding to run the site.

Without permission, supervised injection will not take place, Muckle said, but staff could still offer other 24-hour services.

Those could include an opioid substitution program to supply legal prescription drugs to users addicted to illegal ones.

Muckle concedes it would be difficult for staff to send users away to inject drugs elsewhere, and more dangerously.

"I really hope that we never get to that," she said. "I think we really have to put faith in our government to recognize that this is a crisis for citizens of this city and this country, and that they're going to work with us to do the best that can be done for them."

Overdose Prevention Ottawa opened this pop-up supervised injection site in Raphael Brunet Park this past summer. Advocates for drug users say the single city-sanctioned site is not enough to meet the need. (Kimberley Molina/CBC)

Ottawa's public health department told CBC it supports the application by Ottawa Inner City Health, saying that supervised injection sites "help reduce overdose deaths, risks from public injecting, and transmission of HIV and hepatitis C virus (HCV) among people who inject drugs, particularly for more marginalized people who are homeless or unstably housed."

Existing pop-up site vital: Muckle

Muckle praised the supervised injection site being run by volunteers in a downtown park, saying the city-sanctioned site that opened this week on Clarence Street is not enough to meet demand.

City councillor Mathieu Fleury has said the tent in the park should come down.

Another long-awaited supervised injection site is expected to open at the Sandy Hill Community Health Centre this fall. It could ultimately serve some of those who attend the proposed trailer, but Muckle anticipates continuing demand around the shelter.

"I don't think I ever anticipated in my working life I would see the things that I've seen in the last six months," Muckle said. "Every day I get up at least twice during the night to check my phone to see if anybody's died. Every morning when I drive by the Shepherds, I look to see who's there.

"And I always have somebody I'm worried I'm not going to see."