Canadians on front line in push for supervised injection sites in New York

As New York inches closer to opening America's first safe injection sites, a pair of Canadians who helped found a similar site in Vancouver in 2003 find themselves in the midst of the same battles they fought 15 years ago.

'I think it's barbaric that we have to pretend this is a bathroom,' advocate says

A volunteer at the Washington Heights Corner Project demonstrates how drug users can make use of the bathrooms at the facility. Program participants are given 15 minutes alone inside, with a staff member checking on them every five minutes in the event of an overdose. (Sean Conaboy/CBC News)

It's 9 a.m. and already the corner in front of the Washington Heights Corner Project is starting to fill up. The doors won't open for another hour, but the people here — some homeless, all eager for their next hit — know it's worth the wait.

Once inside, they sign up and get in line to use one of two bathrooms. The people, called participants here, are given 15 minutes inside, no questions asked. Many will inject heroin. If they don't have their own needles, they'll be given clean supplies.

Every five minutes there will be a knock on the door and an outreach worker will check if they're OK. If there's no response, the outreach worker will burst in with life-saving equipment and overdose-reversing medication like naloxone at the ready.

The facility, which operates a syringe exchange program, also provides counselling and other services. But the project has generated some controversy because if you take away the door and the toilet, what you're essentially left with is a supervised injection site — something that's still illegal in the U.S.

Canadian Jesse Reid moved to New York in October, having worked at the supervised injection site in Vancouver. He says while people want to describe the bathrooms at Washington Heights Corner Project as controversial, he sees them as a way to help those in crisis. (Steven D'Souza/CBC News)

"I think it's barbaric that we have to pretend this is a bathroom in order to do service provision, but you know, we have to do what we have to do," said Jesse Reid, a Canadian who moved to New York in October and now works at the New York project.

Reid used to work at Insite, the first supervised injection facility in North America which started in Vancouver in 2003.

"I left a battle zone and I came into another one."

Familiar fight

Reid's boss is another Canadian who is intimately familiar with Vancouver's fight to get a supervised injection site. For Mark Townsend, the challenges that come with working in a city facing an increase in overdose deaths, a federal government critical of their approach and a community searching for answers is all too familiar.

Along with his wife Liz Evans, Townsend was part of a group of housing advocates that pushed in the 1990s for the creation of a site to help deal with the soaring HIV rates and overdose deaths that were hitting Vancouver's Downtown Eastside.

One of the founders of Canada's first supervised injection site, Mark Townsend, says New York City is at a crossroads in its push to find new ways to deal with overdose deaths. (Steven D'Souza/CBC News)

Townsend and Evans left Vancouver after a 2014 spending controversy at the non-profit Portland Hotel Society, where the pair served as co-executive directors.

An internal audit commissioned by the B.C. government found questionable expenses and a weak financial position. Townsend said at the time that none of the expenses in question, which included costly hotels and limo rides, were paid for with government or program money. There were no charges but the couple was forced out, with Townsend saying managers at the organization faced a choice of either stepping down or watching the organization lose contracts.

"I think when you try and change things and when you have political battles, you know, you get lots of scars. So I mean really those, to me, they're just like kind of badges of honour," said Townsend, who now works as the director of harm reduction at the Washington Heights project.

He said the issues from Vancouver don't appear to have followed them to New York, where they have found an audience eager to hear the gospel of harm reduction.

Overdose deaths on the rise

The overdose issue is a pressing one in America's largest city.

A study says 1,441 people died of drug overdoses in New York last year —  more than the number of people who died by suicides, murders and car accidents combined.

Evans, now executive director of New York Harm Reduction Educators, said when she and her husband arrived two years ago the conversation about supervised injection sites was already underway but still in the early stages.

Liz Evans says there are challenges to changing the way drug use is discussed in the U.S., including the racial nature of the drug debate and the difficulty advocates have convincing authorities that there are alternatives to the war on drugs. (Steven D'Souza/CBC News)

When New York Mayor Bill de Blasio championed the idea of supervised injection sites last month, calling them overdose prevention centres, backers of harm reduction saw it as a big step forward.

But whether these sites will actually open in the sprawling city is still uncertain. While some in law enforcement have expressed support for the centres, it's far from unanimous. Michael McMahon, district attorney for Staten Island, has argued supervised injection is the wrong approach.

"While thinking outside the box is necessary to finding solutions for the heroin and opioid epidemic, I believe creating supervised injection sites undermines prevention and treatment efforts, and only serves to normalize the use of these deadly drugs," said McMahon in a statement to CBC News.

The New York Police Department, which employs roughly 36,000 officers, has expressed cautious support. The department recently sent a team to Toronto to look how police handle things around The Works, a harm reduction site which opened up to supervised injection in 2017.

"For cops, the idea of knowingly allowing illegal drug use to occur is a difficult thing to accept,"NYPD spokesperson Det. Kellyann Ort wrote in an email to CBC News.  "As these overdose prevention centres become a reality, we will ensure that those facilities — and the neighbourhoods around them — are safe and free of drug dealing, and that quality of life is preserved."

Townsend and Evans say it can be frustrating facing resistance given the body of research showing the effectiveness of safe injection sites in reducing overdose deaths.

Townsend compared the current political climate under U.S. President Donald Trump to the atmosphere under the Conservative government of Stephen Harper, which put up roadblocks to the expansion of injection sites around the country.

"Having been around this block it's depressing," he said. "I feel if you could sit down with them, or like we've done with other people, show them the reality to these things, they would change their mind."

Mike Bailey, an outreach worker who backs Townsend's efforts, said he thinks more people in power in New York need to hear about Canada's experience. 

"We have to put pressure on them showing them that it works in Amsterdam. It works in Canada. It will work in New York."

Outreach worker Mike Bailey cleans up needles and other drug supplies in a remote corner of High Bridge Park in the Washington Heights neighbourhood of Upper Manhattan in New York (Steven D'Souza/CBC News)

Bailey spends his afternoons pushing through bushes and trees in High Bridge Park in Washington Heights finding makeshift encampments where users shoot up, and cleaning up used needles. He leaves behind fresh needles and Naloxone kits for those who don't make it in the bathrooms at the Corner Project. 

Evans said New York is looking at options that would allow the sites to open as research projects, potentially putting them on course for a legal showdown with the federal government, a battle she knows all too well, having fought to keep Vancouver's site open at the Supreme Court of Canada. 

"It's frustrating but at the same time I get it. You know people are scared and they're scared of what they don't know. And we experienced that in Canada," Evans said.

"The truth is what's going on here isn't working. If it was working we wouldn't be in a crisis that we're in and people wouldn't be dying."