For the second Friday in a row, a makeshift, volunteer-run overdose prevention site operated for a few hours in the downtown/Flour Mill area of Greater Sudbury.
While Greater Sudbury Police, a city bylaw officer and a paramedic arrived at the scene just off Louis Street, the group was allowed to operate until the early evening.
It's reflective of the approach officials are taking to the opioid crisis, which kills someone in the city every five days. Rather than arresting users, the focus is on preventing overdose deaths and other harm-prevention strategies.
A registered nurse spoke for the group of volunteers -- called the STOP (Sudbury Temporary Overdose Prevention) Society --- operating the popup safe injection site. The nurse asked not to be named – because of the legal grey area they are operating in, and to put the focus on the plight of addicts.
“This came about from a collective of people who have lived experience – people who are frontline workers and health-care providers who have been seeing the increase in opioid poisoning on our streets, and the fact that nothing is being done to help prevent these deaths from happening,” the nurse said.
“So we decided that we needed to have an emergency, immediate response. And so we are running off of the experience of our allies in Toronto who had who have been running these sites across the province.”
It's a Band-Aid solution, she said, because the province has not authorized a safe site in several communities in Ontario facing the crisis, including Greater Sudbury.
“It's meant to address an urgent need,” she said. “Opioid deaths in Ontario have increased by 52 per cent, and emergency room visits due to suspected overdoses have increased by 72 per cent in the past year in Northern Ontario alone.”
While many people in the public oppose such sites – angry neighbours could be heard shouting “get out of here, you druggies” among other things Friday – the nurse pointed out the sites not only reduce deaths, they reduce the incredible strain on health-care workers and ER departments overdoses cause.
Users are offered education and some counselling from the volunteers, she said, and documentation is kept for each outlining the age, gender and other vital information for people using the site.
On Friday, the nurse had long discussions with police and a bylaw official from the city, and she credited them with wanting to prevent overdose deaths as much as the volunteers do.
“We are here to save lives and not disrupt order, so to speak, and I think that everybody, no matter who you are, recognizes the fact that we have no malicious intent in being here,” she said. “That is a good place to start a dialogue.”
Police released a statement Friday that said similar sites have popped up in other communities as the opioid crisis worsens.
“GSPS, along with our community partners within the Community Drug Strategy, recognize opioids are killing Sudburians,” the statement said. “We acknowledge this crisis plagues nearly every community in the country and that saving lives is a key component of community safety and well-being.”
Officials are exploring opening an official supervised site, the statement said, and police are “committed to investigating the criminal acts of illegally producing, distributing and trafficking opioids in our community and to holding those offenders accountable. We also remain committed to reducing the harms faced by those living with addictions.”
City communications officer Shannon Dowling released a statement on behalf of the city Friday that said harm prevention efforts are important, “however it is also important for us to ensure neighbours and park patrons feel safe.
“Bylaw officers have informed the organizing group they are in contravention of the Parks Bylaw, which states no group shall engage in an organized activity in a park without an authorized permit. These rules apply to any type of organized gathering in a city park. We continue to work with our community partners and the community drug strategy, working together to improve the health, safety and well-being of individuals in our community.”
Some area residents complained to Sudbury.com Friday that the pop-up site was attracting addicts to the neighbourhood, and wondered why they would set up in a residential neighbourhood.
Louis Street resident Robert Ubdegrove said people shooting up in the neighbourhood has become a fairly common sight, and he doesn't like it. But he feels bad for them.
“It's a disease, right?” Ubdegrove said. “It's like if you got a cancer treatment, you go to the hospital. They (addicts) got a safe injection site. That's just the way things are.”
The nurse volunteering with the group said they plan to open popup sites again, but don't have a schedule or plan laid out yet.
But the need was made clear Friday as four people overdosed in nearby Hnatyshyn Park just as the popup site was being prepared.
“They didn't make it here,” the nurse said.