Activists warn of 'carnage' if city can't keep Moss Park overdose prevention tent open

The overdose prevention tent in Moss Park has saved dozens of lives since it opened, but now the volunteers who run it are warning the cold weather could force it to close by the end of the month and the city's back-up plan appears months away.

Fred Victor Centre could house downtown Toronto's 4th supervised-injection site

Some 20-30 people are still going to the Moss Park overdose prevention site to inject drugs, a volunteer there says. The cold weather could soon force the tent to close. (Darryl Dyck/Canadian Press)

The overdose prevention tent in Moss Park has saved dozens of lives since it opened, but now the volunteers who run it are warning the cold weather could force it to close by the end of the month and the city's back-up plan appears months away.

Harm reduction worker Zoe Dodd vowed on CBC Radio's Metro Morning to keep the site going, but blasted the slow government response. 

"Stop counting bodies, stop counting how many people are dead. Just prevent the deaths," she said. 

"It's carnage," she said, breaking down in tears.

Health Canada is being asked to approve a fourth supervised-injection site in downtown Toronto as the city continues to deal with opioid overdoses, two councillors confirmed to CBC Toronto on Wednesday. The indoor site would be at the Fred Victor Centre, just across the street from the park.

Coun. Joe Mihevc says he's hopeful Ottawa will move quickly to grant the necessary exemption from federal drug rules, although he declined to say how long that might take.

"It will be processed as quickly as possible," he said.

"They've given us some indication that they will move heaven and earth to get it done as soon as possible which is what we really want at the city."

Matt Johnson, a harm reduction worker who volunteers at the Moss Park site, worries it could take months. Realistically, he says, the tent will be forced to close by the end of the month as temperatures drop. Some nights have already been so cold that drug users have struggled to find veins, he says, although some 20-30 people still go there to inject while double that go to the site to have someone watch over them as they smoke drugs. 

"Just because winter comes, people don't stop using," he said.

Harm reduction workers are set to hold a 2 p.m. news conference in the park where they're expected to call on the city to provide a heated trailer so they can keep working.

Johnson says he's worried if they close, more drug users will be forced to use in isolation, something that can be deadly.

Tory, Hoskins pen letter to Ottawa calling for quick approval

Mayor John Tory is calling on the federal government to quickly approve a fourth supervised-injection site, this one at the Fred Victor Centre near Moss Park. (John Rieti/CBC)

Mayor John Tory and Ontario Health Minister Eric Hoskins have sent a joint letter to the federal health minister urging the government to immediately approve the Fred Victor site.

"Many people are using the overdose prevention site, and many lives have been saved by overdose reversals. However, operating this type of health service in a park is not sustainable not least because winter is approaching," the letter states.

Tory, speaking with reporters Wednesday morning, said he's hoping it's now "a matter of paperwork," and that if there's a gap between the Fred Victor site opening and the overdose prevention site closing, it will be a matter of days.

When asked about concerns that the Fred Victor centre won't offer the same things the Moss Park site does — for example, the ability to smoke drugs that could be laced with fentanyl or other substances — Tory said he's "optimistic" once the site is up and running some solutions will be found.

However, Tory made it clear he expects the overdose prevention site to close if Fred Victor opens.

"I don't for a moment question the motives of the people who set up there, but it's not a proper place," he said, noting the lack of running water and other facilities.

Approved sites set to open this fall

The city has been working to move the overdose prevention site indoors since early September, however Mihevc says it's a complex process once governments are involved. He says he knows harm reduction workers are upset with the slow pace of the response, so far.

"I expect them to be frustrated," he said. "I understand and appreciate that impatience."

Both Mihevc and Coun. Joe Cressy say the request has now been sent to Health Canada, however Mark Aston, Fred Victor's executive director, declined to comment, saying only that a number of parties are working hard on the issue.

Health Canada spokesperson Anna Maddison said in an email that the organization is: "committed to reviewing all applications to operate supervised consumption sites as quickly as possible."

Meanwhile, the three permanent supervised injection sites that have already been approved are expected to open this fall, however a temporary site is already open at The Works public health facility, near Yonge and Dundas Square.

"The interim supervised injection services will continue to operate until the permanent site opens," said Toronto Public Health's Shaun Hopkins in an email.

With files from CBC Radio's Metro Morning