They wait, uneasily, at ‘ground zero’
Potential first 24/7 injection site gets trailer, but Shepherds needs OK
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.
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...
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.