Community drums up $180K for Saskatoon's supervised drug consumption site

Community efforts have raised more than $180,000 for Prairie Harm Reduction since the provincial government declined to put any money towards Saskatoon's supervised consumption site in its 2021-22 annual budget.

Fundraisers started popping up after government rejected supporting site in provincial budget

Prairie Harm Reduction says Saskatchewan is dealing with Canada's highest HIV rates, largely fueled by injection drug use. (Kendall Latimer/CBC)

Jason Mercredi has been overwhelmed by the grassroots fundraising effort to help Saskatoon's supervised drug consumption site.

"It's incredibly humbling, and saying thank you feels like not enough," he said, adding the financial support sends a clear message. "If you're living with addictions to Saskatchewan, you're not alone and our agency definitely doesn't feel alone."

Local businesses and community members raised $180,992.42 so far for the site since it was declined annual funding in the provincial budget last month. Mercredi said more than 50 businesses and 450 single donors have contributed, and there are still fundraisers underway. 

"We're going to expand hours now into the evening — not with the full staffing contingent that we would like, but something's better than nothing." 

He said they will need to hire a paramedic and a support worker to oversee the expansion. Mercredi said the demand for the site remains steady. There were three overdoses there last week. 

By July, he's hopeful they'll be able to start running drug testing services. 

The community input is huge, he said, but it's still significantly less than what they asked of the province: $1.3 million to run 24/7, $900,000 to run until midnight and $600,000 to open in the evenings. 

Mercredi is hopeful that by this time next year the government will have pitched in. Saskatchewan's drug crisis has been worsened substantially within the last two years. PHR has twice been denied annual funding from the government for the consumption site.

"The business community understands that site's needed and the medical community understands the site's needed," he said. "The only thing we're missing right now is the elected officials." 

Prairie Harm Reduction is a non-profit organization in Saskatoon, a sort of community centre offering services to vulnerable people. By the time Jason Mercredi became executive director in 2016, he had seen 120 clients die. There have been more deaths since then, and Jason predicts more to come, now that the opioid overdose crisis has settled into Saskatchewan. That's why Jason and his team worked so hard to open the province's first supervised consumption site last fall — and fought like hell when their funding fell though. 33:13

The site is a safer space for people to use drugs with sterile supplies. Professionals are on site to prevent fatal overdoses and staff also can connect people living with addictions to support services. 

"It's better if we're all working together and on the same page; it shouldn't be up to a single non-profit to try to fundraise for these services," Mercredi said. 

'It's breaking a barrier'

Marie Agioritis said her heart was full with hope when she saw the influx of community support for PHR.

She's undertaken an extensive amount of advocacy work since her son Kelly Best died after a fentanyl overdose in 2015, working with Moms Stop the Harm to advocate for evidence-based harm reduction and treating addiction as a healthcare issue among government and policy makers. 

For years, she feared there wouldn't be change in the province until the current generation of political leadership aged out, but now she's more optimistic that people will be able to create change. 

She said the public support has helped some community leaders speak up who might have otherwise been silenced by stigma.

"It's breaking a barrier that has been there for so long," Agioritis said.

Marie Agioritis is a Saskatoon mother who has become a strong advocate for harm reduction methods, including supervised injection sites, since her son's overdose death. (Submitted by Marie Agioritis)

Agioritis is relieved to see other advocates join her in the fight for better care and understanding of those living with addictions.

For her, it's deeply personal. She remembers her mom saying, "You're a mother till they close the lid."

"Until that day, I will fight to make sure that our communities are safer in the name of my son," she said. "My boy was not just a toe tag and he was not just a kid who made a mistake. ... I will fight until the day I die until things change."

Agioritis said the grassroots efforts must turn into a movement so harm reduction services can be expanded and funded across the province. 

"Keep the momentum going​, so we could change the flavour of political decisions when it comes to things like Prairie Harm Reduction," ​she said.

"So we can create some stability in th​e community and make it safer and more cost effective for all of us, our taxpayers and our people who walk the streets.​"