Toronto now has an official safe-injection site, but will drug users go?
Public health officials taking wait-and-see approach, while unsanctioned Moss Park site draws dozens
Toronto now has two supervised injection sites — one official, one unsanctioned — where drug users can have someone watch over them, and one harm reduction worker says the city will need both and many more if it's going to prevent overdose deaths in the future.
Toronto Public Health (TPH) opened its temporary safe-injection site at The Works, its harm reduction facility near Yonge -Dundas Square, on Monday. The three-booth space is the first iteration of three safe-injection sites that the city's working to open by this fall.
Dr. Rita Shahin, the associate medical officer of health, said in an email statement the city "cannot anticipate" how many drug users will safely inject there, but that it expects many current clients will.
"It is our hope that the message gets out so that individuals requiring this important service will come to our office to receive the services in a safe and hygienic environment under the supervision of qualified staff," said Shahin.
Nicholas Boyce, a long-time harm reduction worker, says he thinks drug users currently shooting up in nearby alleyways will use the service.
"We now have open drug use there already," he told CBC Toronto, noting there have been reported overdoses in the area in recent weeks.
However, Boyce says the site may be too far from Moss Park for many drug users relying on the unsanctioned pop-up where he volunteers.
Leigh Chapman, one of the organizers of the Moss Park site, tweeted that 15 people came to the tent to do drugs on its first day. Now, dozens use the site daily, with some even bringing new faces along. This mirrors a trend in Vancouver, where there are now more than six unsanctioned sites that are often run by people in the community.
Boyce says all overdose prevention sites face challenges when it comes to winning the trust of drug users, many of whom prefer to do drugs alone, something that puts them at extreme risk of dying.
"As we show that we've created a safe space, that we know what we're talking about, that we're trustworthy people … more people in the area feel safe to come by and check us out," he said.
"Finding that balance between the professional healthcare side of things and the lived experience — that's going to be a challenge."
At the TPH facility, drug users will be asked for their age, gender and a brief history of their substance use.
Shaun Hopkins, a manager at The Works, says she'll also be talking with drug users about what else they need, possibly in terms of different hours or additional supports.
"It's a brand new service for Toronto. I think there will be a lot of demand," she said.
Toronto's official site will operate from 4-10 p.m. from Monday to Saturday.
Once all three safe-injection sites are open, they'll operate from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. every day.
Toronto's medical officer of health also stressed Monday morning the importance of getting naloxone kits into the hands of drug users, so they can potentially prevent overdoses that take place in the dead of night.