A packed community meeting to discuss a proposed health hub operated by Boyle Street Community Services (BSCS) in Edmonton’s Ritchie neighbourhood was held Monday night.
At times erupting in shouting, the meeting was standing-room-only and was held so residents could hear more from the organization on how it plans to be a “good neighbour,” according to BSCS’ Elliott Tanti.
“We need to be good community partners, and what’s been said loud and clear tonight is that we need to work directly with business owners, landowners and residents to make sure that we’re upholding our part of the bargain and being good partners in this new facility,” Tanti said.
BSCS said it was tasked by the provincial government to create a health hub south of the North Saskatchewan River in Edmonton.
The health hub, which will include a supervised consumption site (SCS) and recovery and treatment services, was slated for the Ritchie area because people there are dying of drug overdoses and there aren’t any SCSs nearby to help prevent that, Tanti said.
“We know that there’s open air drug use in this community right now,” he said. “We know that there are overdoses occurring.
“We know that people are dying. And so we want to create services that are addressing those issues.”
A spokesperson for the provincial ministry of addictions said the ministry is exploring the need for a new SCS south of the river and will provide BSCS with up to $2.15 million a year to support its operations if the proposal ends up going forward.
About 800 people have signed a petition to move the proposed supervised consumption site elsewhere. Opponents, like Rob Bligh of Scona Concerned Citizens, say they believe the health hub will hurt the neighbourhood.
“The biggest concerns essentially are an increase of crime, a decrease in public safety and a destruction of the revitalization of our neighbourhood,” Bligh said.
“People won’t invest in an area where they even just perceive that those are problems.”
The Ritchie resident said while he supports the idea of an SCS, he doesn’t want one in his neighbourhood. He said that within half a kilometre of the proposed site, there are three daycares, the homes of more than 3,000 people and more than 400 small businesses.
Julian Schulz lives in the nearby community of Strathcona but attended Monday’s meeting. He said he would be delighted if the service came to his neighbourhood.
“I think there’s a desperate need for the service,” he said. “We saw that overdose deaths really skyrocketed during the (COVID-19) pandemic. Maybe they’ve come down a bit, but still extremely high.”
According to data from the provincial government, deaths by drug poisoning in Edmonton reached a high in December 2021 with 70 deaths reported. There were 527 deaths by drug overdose between January and November 2022 and 549 in the same period in 2021.
“These are people — they are mothers, brothers, sons, daughters. I myself lost my brother to an overdose,” Schulz said.
“It is very hard when you hear people speaking out against this… people are wanting to deny people a service that could have saved my brother’s life. And that really hurts me.”
Evidence shows decrease in open drug use, discarded needles after SCS opening
In 2020, the provincial government commissioned a review of the social impacts of existing and proposed supervised consumption sites in the province.
While the data from across the province shows mixed results, survey answers from both residents and businesses in Edmonton suggest that SCSs made no change or even decreased the prevalence of litter, discarded drug paraphernalia, erratic behaviour and public drug use.
The study shows that 82 per cent of Edmontonians and 63 per cent of business owners were supportive of a SCS in the area of their business or home, numbers significantly higher than in other Alberta cities.
The survey asked business owners and residents whether they saw an increase or decrease in behaviours like open drug use, drug dealing, urinating or defecating in public, erratic behaviour and violent acts. It also asked about impacts on the neighbourhood, like garbage and discarded needles and other drug paraphernalia.
Most Edmonton residents surveyed reported no increase in any of the above behaviours and neighbourhood effects.
Two-thirds of Edmontonians living near an SCS reported seeing a decrease in open drug use. Only seven per cent reported seeing an increase in open drug use.
Sixty-four per cent of Edmontonians polled said they saw a decrease in discarded needles and 58 per cent saw a decrease in other discarded drug paraphernalia. Half of respondents felt no change to their safety when walking through their neighbourhood during the day or night, with about one-third feeling safer than before the SCS was opened in the area. For all of the unwanted behaviours, only a maximum of 10 per cent of respondents reported an increase.
Edmonton business owners were more likely to report an increase in social disorder, though the majority still reported a decrease or no change.
About 40 per cent reported seeing an increase in erratic behaviour, with about 60 per cent reporting a decrease or no change. Forty-two per cent of business owners reported an increase in seeing people sleeping on sidewalks and in doorways, with 56 per cent reporting a decrease or no change.
Almost half of business owners reported seeing a decrease in the number of discarded needles and other drug paraphernalia.
More than 40 per cent of business owners said there was a decrease in public drug use following the opening of an SCS near their business. About a quarter said there was no change and 32 per cent said there was an increase.
More than a dozen studies from the past 20 years support the conclusion that SCSs are associated with lower levels of discarded drug paraphernalia, open drug use and other disorder.
Bligh said despite the studies, people in his neighbourhood are still worried about the effects of the hub on the community.
“People’s actual observations and personal experiences with fires, with break-ins, with vandalism, with theft, seem to be at odds with the quoted statistics that are being presented that claim that (crime is) already there and there will be no increase,” Bligh said.
Mayor Amarjeet Sohi said he supports the SCS and other interventions like safe supply and treatment and recovery beds.
“Across the country, and Edmonton is no exception, we are facing a huge crisis of overdoses and drug poisoning and we need to look at all the options,” said Sohi.
“I hope Edmontonians embrace a compassionate approach to helping Edmontonians get better.”
The city councillor for the area, Michael Janz, declined a request for an interview and said this is the province’s jurisdiction.
Temitope Oriola, criminology professor at the University of Alberta, believes a balance between providing harm reduction and protecting businesses can be achieved.
“I do believe that crime is not an inevitable outcome of a location of a… (supervised) consumption site,” he said. “Disorder, however, is a real possibility.”
Oriola gave sleeping on sidewalks and public intoxication as examples of disorder. He said area residents will want to know how future problems will be dealt with.
“What I think has been missing from the narrative is a clear and unambiguous series of plans and clear demarcation of resources to deal with potential issues that may come up,” he said.
Tanti said the BSCS will take the feedback received at the Monday meeting and apply it to its Good Neighbour Commitment and will ultimately apply for a licence to operate an SCS in the space.
“The provincial government has outlined really strict regulations to operate these services, and our goal is to adhere to that as closely as possible,” Tanti said.
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