Toronto

Kensington Market residents call for action after 2 die of suspected overdoses in public park

Two men who died of suspected overdoses in a Kensington Market park appear to be the latest casualties in a crisis gripping Canada's largest city. Advocates say it's the result of homelessness and opioids, a combination made even worse by the pandemic, the housing crisis and a toxic supply of street drugs.

Men were both cleared out of encampments earlier this year, outreach worker says

Two suspected overdose deaths within a month highlight the tragic connection between homelessness and the overdose crisis. (Ryan Patrick Jones/CBC )

The body of a man who died of a suspected overdose was lying on the ground for hours in Toronto's Bellevue Square Park last Saturday, covered by a blanket and surrounded by police tape as residents watched.

Another man, 28-year-old DJ Ryckman, died three weeks earlier of a suspected overdose in the same Kensington Market park after paramedics tried unsuccessfully to revive him outside the tent where he slept.

Gabriella Caruso, founder of a nearby community arts studio, helped organize a vigil to honour Ryckman, a well-known member of the Indigenous community who was skilled in art and dancing.

Caruso said Ryckman became homeless just before the COVID-19 pandemic hit.

"He was very kind. He just lit up the room," said Caruso. "I don't want to sound cliché, but he was just a really bright, beautiful, great individual and quite loving and supportive."

The two men appear to the latest casualties of the overdose crisis gripping Canada's largest city. Their deaths highlight the tragic connection between the overlapping crises of homelessness and opioids, which advocates say have been worsened by the pandemic, the soaring cost of housing and a toxic supply of drugs.

By May of this year, there were 215 opioid-related deaths in the city, according to preliminary data from Toronto Public Health. That's on pace for a yearly total of 516, which would be slightly less than the 531 that occurred last year when Toronto saw a massive 81 per cent spike compared to 2019.

Two crises, no one solution

Nathan Doucet, an encampment outreach worker who knew both men, said they were living in or near the park at the time of their deaths.

One had recently stayed in a city-run shelter hotel, Doucet said, but had been kicked out after an altercation with staff.

"The life of the street and the trauma that can occur there ... I would say led both of these people to a place where they overdosed and they died," said Doucet.

Nathan Doucet is an encampment outreach worker in Toronto. (Submitted by Nathan Doucet)

They were part of a wave of unhoused people who moved to alternative locations across the city following the clearing of larger encampments at AlexandraTrinity-Bellwoods and Lamport Stadium parks this summer.

Three such small-scale encampments have sprung up in parks in the Kensington Market area alone.

"A lot of the smaller parks or under the bridges or along the waterfront have filled up quite heavily," said Doucet. "In some areas of those parks they're experiencing, like real community, real fortification, real survival and real protection."

Graham Hollings and Francisca Duran, two neighbours whose homes face Bellevue Square Park, said they're concerned all levels of government aren't doing enough to tackle homelessness and the toxic drug supply.

Kensington Market residents Graham Hollings and Francisca Duran say they’re concerned governments aren’t doing enough to ensure the health and safety of encampment residents as winter approaches. (Submitted by Graham Hollings and Francisca Duran)

"There really is a car crash of issues here coming together," said Hollings. "The failure to build affordable housing and ... to provide solutions that work for people who are experiencing homelessness."

"The city has provided a fairly fulsome outreach campaign to help encampment residents," added Duran. "[But] one of our concerns is that the the issues are so complex ... that even this great effort is not enough to help."

According to a survey conducted in April, there were 7,347 people experiencing homelessness in Toronto, 742 of whom were staying outdoors. Since then, the city said 500 people have been referred to indoor housing.

The city said another 2,898 people have moved from the shelter system into permanent housing, including 270 last month.

A fentanyl tablet is pictured beside a photo of syringes in an evidence bag. (CBC)

Toxic drug supply

Medical experts say the recent spike in overdoses has largely been caused by a range of toxic substances found within the street drug supply. The city's drug checking service has reported finding unexpected, highly potent drugs in samples.

Those include opioids like carfentanil, etonitazene, isotonitazene, and etizolam. These substances, which are mixed with more common opioids like fentanyl, can contribute to higher incidents of overdoses.

The two Bellevue Square Park deaths took place just steps from St. Stephen's Community House, where The Neighbourhood Group (TNG) runs a supervised injection site.

But the site is only open from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m., six days a week. The Ford government pulled its funding in 2019, and it's since survived solely on donations from the community and social service organizations. Barb Panter, who oversees the site, said additional money from the province could make it more accessible.

Violence broke out as Toronto police and city workers cleared a homeless encampment at Trinity Bellwoods Park in June. Many displaced residents have since set up tents in smaller parks around the city. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

"We would love to be open for 24 hours a day, and I'm sure we would be well used 24 hours a day," said Panter. "We just don't have the funds."

Panter said TNG has put together a six-member outreach team made up of people who have experienced homelessness or drug use. The team builds relationships with encampment residents and connects them to city services, shelters or other housing options.

She said while a handful of people aren't interested, several have gone inside in recent weeks.

Toronto Public Health's Associate Medical Officer Dr. Rita Shahin acknowledged that homelessness and the overdose crisis are closely connected. She said the city has increased its efforts to reach people living outside, opened new supervised injection sites in shelters and offered drug checking services so people can test their drugs.

Police clear out a homeless encampment in Trinity Bellwoods Park on the morning of Tuesday, June 22, 2021. Protesters surround tents in an attempt to prevent police from removing the encampment. (Patrick Morrell/CBC)

TPH is also calling on the federal government to decriminalize drugs and offer safer supply programs to people who use drugs and will consider a report that includes a proposal for drug decriminalization at its Dec. 6 meeting.

"Having clean, regulated drug supplies is where we need to get to eventually," Shahin said.

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