Ottawa Public Health referring drug users to unsanctioned safe injection site

While some city officials want an unsanctioned supervised injection site in downtown Ottawa to close now that a sanctioned injection site is open two blocks away, the city's public health agency is promoting the pop-up site to drug users.

OPH says site is making a difference as mayor and police chief side against it

Andrew Hendriks with Ottawa Public Health says they promote an unsanctioned supervised drug use site nearby at their government-approved site, just like the volunteers running the unsanctioned site do for theirs. (Reno Patry/CBC)

The city's public health agency is promoting an unsanctioned supervised injection site in downtown Ottawa to drug users, despite city officials wanting the pop-up site shut down.

For close to two weeks, Ottawa Public Health (OPH) and the Sandy Hill Community Health Centre have been running a government-approved supervised drug injection site at an OPH clinic on Clarence Street in the ByWard Market.

Since the legal site has opened, there have been calls from the local city councillor, mayor and police chief for the illegal site to leave the park, though steps have yet to be taken by police or the city's bylaw department to enforce the request.

The OPH clinic is serving an average of about eight people a day in the five hours it's open, Andrew Hendriks, the agency's director of health protection, said Friday.

But two blocks away, a pop-up site at Raphael Brunet Park that's been opening three hours a night for more than a month serves an average of 35 people a night, according to Overdose Prevention Ottawa (OPO), the volunteer-run group behind it.

Overdose Prevention Ottawa says their site is still needed and they're not in competition with the Clarence Street clinic, rather they've been promoting that site to people who visit their tents regularly.

However, it seems to be a two-way street, as Hendriks says they're promoting the unsanctioned site at their clinic as well.

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)

"We support the work they're doing, they're making a difference in terms of preventing overdoses and overdose deaths in the community," he said.

"They do bring some of their clients over here to access our services, they're promoting our services and we're promoting their services as well. In certain situations where there are some things we can't provide, such as supervision for safe inhalation, we'd refer them to Overdose Prevention Ottawa."

On Wednesday, Dr. Isra Levy, Ottawa's chief medical officer of health, told city councillors in a memo his team has repeatedly met with Overdose Prevention Ottawa volunteers and have requested "consideration be given to transferring their guests to our services," though there's no plan or timeline to do so.

Volunteers at the pop-up site have said they're being regularly harassed by people who don't want them there, although they're quick to point out other neighbours have supported them.

OPH expanding hours

Overdose Prevention Ottawa said in a Facebook post they have more room for clients, serving as many as 11 people at a time, while the OPH site can serve two at a time.

Along with supervising people who smoke drugs, Overdose Prevention Ottawa said people can inject each other and inject more than once in the same visit, which the sanctioned site does not allow.

Hendriks said the sanctioned site, which was approved on an interim basis while a permanent site is being built at the nearby Sandy Hill Community Health Centre, is expanding its hours this coming week from 3 to 8 p.m. to 9 a.m. to 9 p.m.

"The numbers of overdoses we've been seeing in the last couple of months is very significant and it's concerning," he said. "What that means for organizations is we need to come up with ways to serve the community."

The Overdose Prevention Ottawa site runs nightly from 6 to 9 p.m.

Better communication needed, councillor says

Despite its popularity, moving the site from Raphael Brunet Park would be best for the area, Rideau-Vanier councillor Mathieu Fleury said Saturday.

"If OPO was to move to the parking lot of the Shepherds of Good Hope or the Sandy Hill Community Health Centre, where the exemptions [for a supervised injection site] have been requested from Health Canada … that would diffuse the majority of the community tension," he said.

The city's response to the overdose problem is constantly evolving and is made more difficult by a "piecemeal" response that could be improved by better coordination between local officials and the province, he said.

With files from Radio-Canada