They wait, un­easily, at ‘ground zero’

Po­ten­tial first 24/7 in­jec­tion site gets trailer, but Shep­herds needs OK

Ottawa Citizen - - FRONT PAGE - JON WILL­ING

Just be­fore 11 a.m. on Thurs­day, John Sang­ster sat cross-legged on the pave­ment in a Low­er­town park­ing lot with a nee­dle filled with the opi­oid hy­dro­mor­phone pressed into his arm.

A woman in a Porsche SUV pulled into the lot next to Saint Brigid’s Cen­tre for the Arts look­ing for a spot as Sang­ster packed up a black plas­tic bag with sy­ringes, a lighter and dis­pos­able wipes, got to his feet and walked back to­ward the Shep­herds of Good Hope, one block away.

It’s a daily rit­ual for Sang­ster — find­ing a nook along a build­ing or nar­row space be­tween two parked cars to get his next fix.

About two hours ear­lier at Shep­herds, a truck de­liv­ered a con­struc­tion trailer that could be­come Ottawa’s first 24/7 su­per­vised in­jec­tion site.

If the trailer re­ceives Health Canada’s ap­proval to op­er­ate as an in­jec­tion site, Sang­ster plans to shoot his drugs in a safe, en­closed space un­der the su­per­vi­sion of health ex­perts, in­stead of pre­par­ing a nee­dle in the shadow of a de­con­se­crated church.

“It just makes you feel you’re not alone,” Sang­ster said. “It gives you a sense of nor­malcy.”

Shep­herds isn’t wait­ing for Health Canada’s ap­proval be­fore pre­par­ing a su­per­vised in­jec­tion site at what one ex­ec­u­tive called the “ground zero” of Ottawa’s opi­oid cri­sis.

Deirdre Frei­heit, pres­i­dent and CEO of Shep­herds, said staff are “barely mak­ing it by the skin of our teeth” try­ing to keep clients safe, con­stantly scour­ing the block around the King Ed­ward Av­enue shel­ter for any­one who has over­dosed.

“Our staff is ab­so­lutely ex­hausted,” Frei­heit said.

A su­per­vised in­jec­tion site runs for 12 hours each day, start­ing at 9 a.m., at Ottawa Pub­lic Health’s Clarence Street build­ing.

The Sandy Hill Com­mu­nity Health Cen­tre also has a fed­eral ex­emp­tion to run an in­jec­tion site, but it’s still com­plet­ing ren­o­va­tions at its Nel­son Street build­ing.

Vol­un­teer group Over­dose Pre­ven­tion Ottawa has been op­er­at­ing an un­sanc­tioned ser­vice for three hours each night in a tent at Raphael Brunet Park, just around the cor­ner from Shep­herds.

Frei­heit said there are still sig­nif­i­cant gaps in su­per­vised in­jec­tion ser­vices, even with two pro­grams in op­er­a­tion.

“The ma­jor­ity of our clients aren’t walk­ing the block to the pop-up tent for the care,” Frei­heit said.

That also means they’re prob­a­bly not walk­ing to the health unit’s clinic on Clarence Street.

Frei­heit said Shep­herds clients want to stay close to the shel­ter to do their drugs, which is why a su­per­vised in­jec­tion site on the prop­erty is crit­i­cal at a time when the deadly fen­tanyl and car­fen­tanil are be­ing passed off as heroin on Ottawa streets.

“We don’t want clients to be go­ing off on their own and be in cri­sis and die some­where,” Frei­heit said. “We want them to be close to us.”

The su­per­vised in­jec­tion ser­vice at Shep­herds would be run by Ottawa In­ner City Health, which is al­ready train­ing staff in an­tic­i­pa­tion of re­ceiv­ing fed­eral ap­proval.

Ottawa In­ner City Health filed an ap­pli­ca­tion last Fe­bru­ary to estab­lish a su­per­vised in­jec­tion site at Shep­herds but re­cently put the ap­pli­ca­tion on hold to file a new pro­posal, which the or­ga­ni­za­tion hopes will lead to a faster ap­proval.

Health Canada re­ceived the new ap­pli­ca­tion on Sept. 29.

“We’re good to go,” said Wendy Muckle, ex­ec­u­tive direc­tor of Ottawa In­ner City Health.

“It’s not like we have any choice. We’ve had a hellish sum­mer.”

Muckle said Ottawa In­ner City Health counted 75 over­dose “re­ver­sals” in Septem­ber 2017.

In Septem­ber 2016, there was one.

If the setup of the trailer goes ac­cord­ing to sched­ule, it should be ready for clients by the end of the month, but it all de­pends on the fed­eral ap­proval.

The or­ga­ni­za­tion also needs fund­ing from the prov­ince.

“All we can re­ally do is hope the feds and the prov­ince feel the same as what we do,” Muckle said.

Muckle lauded the health unit’s work to quickly get ap­proval for its su­per­vised in­jec­tion site on Clarence Street, but she said Shep­herds clients who are us­ing drugs tend to stick around their “safe spot” at the shel­ter.

“It’s not a good fit for their cul­ture and their needs,” Muckle said of the health unit’s site.

The other prob­lem is the op­er­at­ing hours of the two su­per­vised in­jec­tion ser­vices.

The health unit and the tent both wrap up op­er­a­tions each night at 9 p.m.

Frei­heit said the real need is late at night and in the early hours.

“What we’re find­ing with our clients is the clus­ter of over­doses are hap­pen­ing be­tween 8 p.m. and 2 a.m.,” Frei­heit said, un­der­scor­ing the need to have an round-the­clock in­jec­tion site.

“It re­ally is dire. We have to be able to pro­vide these ser­vices,” Frei­heit said. “It’s not wan­ing any­time soon.” Artist Andrea Mueller has a stu­dio that over­looks the park­ing lot be­side Saint Brigid’s Cen­tre for the Arts. Al­most every day she sees some­one shoot­ing up.

Mueller said ten­ants feel un­safe when there are peo­ple out­side the build­ing in­ject­ing drugs. It can’t con­tinue, she said. “I just want peo­ple to un­der­stand it’s a prob­lem and it’s hap­pen­ing in our city, it’s hap­pen­ing in our back­yard,” Mueller said.

“The city has to act and take this se­ri­ously.”

Sang­ster, who has been a drug addict for about five years, said he doesn’t mind be­ing iden­ti­fied through an in­ter­view and pho­to­graphs if it means Ottawa res­i­dents and politi­cians will gain an un­der­stand­ing of how badly a su­per­vised in­jec­tion site is needed at Shep­herds.

In turn, drug users will gain an­other safe spot sur­rounded by peo­ple who care about their health.

“The coun­sel and ed­u­ca­tion will be price­less,” Sang­ster said.

What we’re find­ing with our clients is the clus­ter of over­doses are hap­pen­ing be­tween 8 p.m. and 2 a.m.

TONY CALD­WELL

John Sang­ster pre­pares an opi­oid pill to in­ject be­hind a down­town church on Thurs­day. Shep­herds of Good Hope pres­i­dent Deirdre Frei­heit said staff are ‘barely mak­ing it by the skin of our teeth’ try­ing to keep clients safe while await­ing the go-ahead to open a su­per­vised in­jec­tion site.

TONY CALD­WELL

Caro­line Cox, se­nior man­ager of shel­ter ser­vices at the Shep­herds of Good Hope, stands by a trailer that could be­come a 24/7 su­per­vised in­jec­tion site de­signed to pro­vide as­sis­tance to drug users.

John Sang­ster

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