Parkdale overdose prevention tents shut down as unused trailer sits nearby

On Wednesday, an unsanctioned overdose prevention site in Parkdale will permanently shut down. To the frustration of volunteers, a brand-new overdose prevention site in a trailer is sitting unused just a few minutes away.

A fully-stocked trailer could provide space for drug users, but its doors have never opened

Steph Massey, a harm reduction coordinator at the Parkdale Queen West Community Health Centre and a volunteer at the unsanctioned Parkdale site, says she's filled with rage and sadness at the thought of the site's impending closure. (CBC)

An unsanctioned overdose prevention site operating out of tents in a small park in Parkdale is permanently shutting down Wednesday night, as harm reduction workers anxiously wait for the Ford government to make up its mind about whether to allow sites like it to keep operating.

Just about a 10-minute walk away sits a brand new overdose prevention site in a trailer. Though it's been sitting there since August, nobody has ever had a chance to use it.

It's a thought that fills Steph Massey with rage.

"There is a fully-stocked trailer that is having rent paid on it as we speak that is not being used," she told CBC. "These resources could be saving lives."

Massey is a harm reduction coordinator at the Parkdale Queen West Community Health Centre and volunteer coordinator at the unsanctioned Parkdale site.

The trailer, set up behind the health centre where she works, was set to open as a provincially-sanctioned overdose prevention site in late August.

Then came a last-minute decision by the provincial government to review overdose prevention sites and pause the opening of three previously-funded sites around the province, including the one in Parkdale.

"That same weekend, the police announced there had been overdose fatalities that week," remembered Massey.

Harsh weather makes tents unsustainable

She and other volunteers sprang into action, setting up tents in the Dunn Avenue Parkette to provide a safe, monitored place for drug users.

Since then, the number of people coming to use the site's services has been "picking up every week," said Massey.

But the arrival of the wind, rain and chill of fall has made operating out of tents harder and harder, leading to the difficult decision to shut down the site.

The Toronto Overdose Prevention Society opened this site in August. Inclement weather has made it increasingly uncomfortable and dangerous, say the site's volunteers. (Turgut Yeter/CBC)

"The final straw was when the tent flipped over in the parkette and endangered people," she said.

The site's closing is resonating with staff at other Toronto harm reduction sites.

Jen Ko, who coordinates the Moss Park overdose prevention site, described the province's decision and subsequent silence on the future of the sites as "disheartening and frustrating."

Moss Park remains open

Moss Park, which was already operating at the time of the decision, remains open along with eight other sites around the province.  

After nine months of toughing it out in a tent of their own, the Moss Park site moved indoors this past June.

"Having a bathroom is a miracle," said Ko.

Ko reiterated arguments that experts and politicians like Mayor John Tory and federal Health Minister Ginette Petitpas Taylor have already made: research shows overdose prevention sites save lives and are part of a long-term solution to the opioid crisis.

'Staff had been hired, the trailer had already been set up,' says Jen Ko. She worked at the Parkdale site that was put on pause in August. (CBC)

It's a crisis she says is showing no signs of abating.

"We are on track [in Ontario] to lose as many people as we did in 2017," said Ko.

Still unknown is when the Ford government will make its final decision on the future of overdose prevention sites. For Moss Park, the only sure bet is funding until Christmas Eve of this year.

"We don't know really what will happen in the next few weeks, let alone up until that time and then beyond that time," said Ko.

Parkdale team regroups

Massey says talks are continuing to find ways for the work of the Dunn Avenue Parkette site to continue.

Later this week, she said, they'll host a closed town hall that will provide volunteers and people who use the services with a chance to share their thoughts. 

Among the options being discussed are pop-up overdose prevention sites and educational campaigns. 

"We're looking at different models," said Massey. "It would have to be indoors. And we have no money."

With files from Kelda Yuen