Toronto

Moss Park overdose prevention site could move indoors as city scales up response to opioid crisis

The city is pushing for Moss Park’s unsanctioned overdose prevention site to be moved to an indoor space where it can be staffed by professionals — but city councillors warn that plan hinges on provincial funding.

Ontario to spend $222M to tackle opioid crisis, but city wants money to flow faster

The overdose prevention site in Moss Park may just be a simple tent, but volunteers inside say they've reversed a number of overdoses that could have been fatal. Now, the city wants to move the site to an indoor space nearby, but that will require provincial cash, one councillor says. (Carly Thomas/CBC)

The city is pushing for Moss Park's unsanctioned overdose prevention site to be moved to an indoor space where it can be staffed by professionals — but city councillors warn that plan hinges on provincial funding.

Coun. Joe Mihevc, chair of the city's board of health, says there's no question in his mind that the Moss Park site, started by harm reduction activists nearly a month ago following a spate of overdose deaths, is saving lives. 

But Mihevc says he's worried the success won't be sustainable, especially as the weather gets colder and the volunteers working there tire out.

"The volunteers can't be doing this work forever," he told CBC Toronto.

Mihevc says the city's plan to move the site somewhere indoors in the immediate area — perhaps to a space operated by a social service agency — could happen in a matter of weeks, if the province comes forward with funding. The city also needs the province's approval to apply to Health Canada for an exemption from the Controlled Substances Act.

Harm reduction activist calls for support, not full-scale change

But Leigh Chapman, who helped set up the site and works there, says with up to 30 users a day there are no plans to stop. She also questions how fast the government will be able to act.

Chapman says an indoor space would be nice, but the city could provide more immediate support to Moss Park by providing a storage container for equipment.

"The city needs to step up, and the province needs to step up. But first, the city," she said.

Chapman says there are several other benefits of keeping the Moss Park site "grassroots." She's concerned, for example, that some drug users may be intimidated by an indoor space, while others may not be allowed to use drugs in other manners — at the tent, she explains, they can snort, smoke or inject drugs.

"We would like to be operating with a bit more support, but that doesn't need federal exemption," she said.

Province will provide funding for front-line staff

The province is spending $222 million over the next three years to deal with the opioid crisis, but it has declined to declare a state of emergency, something harm reduction workers have been calling for.

Premier Kathleen Wynne told CBC Radio's Metro Morning that the funding is being delivered as soon as possible, but said she knows many on the front line are "concerned" about how long it will take for more resources to be made available.

Health Canada allowed a temporary supervised injection site to open at The Works last month while renovations continue on the permanent site. (Tina MacKenzie/CBC)

Ontario's Ministry of Health confirmed in an email that $8 million will be spent on hiring more harm reduction workers, while local boards of health will get nearly $16 million over the next three years to hire front-line workers.        

As for converting the Moss Park site into a regulated supervised injection site, spokesperson David Jenson said the ministry would consider an application if it receives one.

"The ministry has streamlined the application process and developed clear guidelines for funding approval," the statement adds.

Meanwhile, Health Canada's website tracking application for supervised consumption sites shows Toronto hasn't yet applied for an exemption.

"Health Canada remains committed to processing all applications for supervised consumption sites as quickly as possible," a spokesperson said in an email statement.

Federal rules too stringent, councillor says

Coun. Joe Cressy, who also sits on the board of health and has been heavily involved in crafting the city's overdose action plan, says the federal requirements are still too onerous.

He also criticized what he sees as the slow delivery of provincial funding.

"When the dollars arrive, I'll believe they've been expedited," he said.

Last week, Mayor John Tory visited the Moss Park site, where he spoke with drug users and harm reduction workers, later hinting the facility may remain open but in a more suitable place with running water and bathrooms.

Harm reduction workers in Moss Park have also sounded the alarm about police presence near the site in recent days.

However, Toronto police spokesperson Mark Pugash said while neighbourhood officers do routine patrols in the area, they are not targeting the site and police will continue to allow it to operate. 

About the Author

John Rieti is the senior producer of digital at CBC Toronto. Born and raised in Newfoundland, John has worked in CBC newsrooms across the country. In Toronto, he's covered everything from the Blue Jays to Toronto city hall. Outside of work, catch him cycling in search of the city's best coffee.