The Somerset West Community Health Centre, located on Eccles Street in Chinatown, has received Health Canada approval to establish a safe-injection site. Molly Pendergast, Centretown News

Somerset West CHC gets Centretown’s first safe-injection site

By Ruth Tecle

Somerset West Community Health Centre has been granted approval to open Centretown’s first safe-injection site.

“Somerset West Community Health Centre believes that every person deserves access to health services,” said Naini Cloutier, the centre’s executive director, in a Dec. 4 statement announcing Health Canada’s green light to open the facility at SWCHC’s Eccles Street location in Chinatown.

“A supervised injection service is essential, because members of our community are dying. They are our brothers, sisters, mothers, fathers, sons and daughters.”

The statement explained that the health centre had been granted a legal exemption by Health Canada to open a supervised injection service and program funding from the Ontario Ministry of Health.

Supervised injection services are part of a harm-reduction strategy being implemented in major cities across Canada to help deal with an ongoing overdose crisis but also to address broader goals of community health and safety.

Once the centre opens, proper needle disposal will be ensured to reduce the spread of infectious disease through needle sharing. Proper disposal will also be a measure taken to prevent needles from being left behind in public spaces, the centre stated.

“SWCHC frequently hears from clients that they use drugs in spaces that do not feel safe to them, including public washrooms, alleys, parks or doorways,” the statement said. “They avoid being observed, are most often alone, and may dispose of needles in public places. Overdose is more likely and more often fatal under these conditions. The lack of a safe space to inject drugs in the Somerset Ward has resulted in a tragic increase in opioid overdose incidents, deaths and community trauma experienced by residents and our clients.”

The centre noted that Somerset Ward was identified in a 2016 report by Ottawa Public Health as having the city’s second highest number of people diagnosed with Hepatitis C or HIV related to reported injected drug use. Somerset also had the city’s second highest rate of emergency room visits related to unintentional drug overdose between 2013-2015.

The health centre is currently planning the renovation required at the Eccles Street site and awaiting infrastructure funding to begin construction. The centre’s SIS facility will open upon Health Canada’s inspection and final approval of the site.

Once the supervised injection service is opened, the centre said, it will provide people who use drugs health care services that range from basic medical attention to access to services aimed at developing healthier approaches to life.

The news about the SIS approval for Somerset West CHC follows a high-profile controversy over safe-injection sites in the city.

Earlier this fall, Cloutier had told Centretown News that individuals who use the centre’s Peer Overdose Prevention Program — which provides free overdose training and naloxone kits — were involved in designing the centre’s proposed supervised injection services.

“They told us what will work and what won’t work,” she explained at the time. “We have a large number of people who use our services. I get asked every day from people who are users, ‘When is this happening?’”

Ottawa Inner City Health also applied to open a safe-injection site in the Byward Market. And Simone Thibault, executive director of the Centretown Community Health Centre, has stated that the Cooper Street facility will consider submitting an application to host a site after the completion of renovations next year.

Ottawa’s first city-sanctioned injection site opened on Sept. 26 on Clarence Street in the Byward Market. Hosted by Ottawa Public Health, the temporary site is operating under an exemption received by Sandy Hill Community Health Centre this past summer to operate a supervised injection site.

The Nelson Street health centre will be home of the permanent site, but due to renovations at that location it is not expected to open until early 2018.

The Clarence Street site operates seven days a week, from 3 p.m. to 8 p.m.

The city opened the temporary Clarence Street site after Dr. Isra Levy, the city’s medical officer of health, sent a memo to the mayor, council and board of health in September detailing the urgency of the opioid crisis in the city. He advised that steps be taken toward implementing immediate interim supervised injection services.

In August, volunteers with the group Overdose Prevention Ottawa launched a controversial pop-up supervised injection site, as a response to the opioid crisis.

The pop-up site, which operated out of Raphael Brunet Park in Lowertown, was located only a few blocks away from Clarence Street.

But that site sparked an uproar in the neighborhood and among municipal politicians. Although the Lowertown site was operating without official sanction, given the urgency of the opioid crisis across Canada and in Ottawa, police did not intervene to shut it down.

Catherine Hacksel, a volunteer and organizer at the pop-up site, said she believes the new site on Clarence is not accessible for all users and that the formality of the city-sanctioned site is problematic.

David Gibson, executive director of SHCHC, said the goal of the planned permanent site in Sandy Hill is to offer a low-barrier threshold for people to use the service safely, and offer options for those who wish to seek treatment for drug addiction.

“From our perspective, our site will offer clients who currently use our programs and services the opportunity to engage and use safely — but also when they’re ready, they can seek treatment options,” he explained. “That is the different between a permanent site and a pop-up site.”

With files from Molly Pendergast