A day in the life on the streets outside city’s safe drug-use site
Lucky, it appears, is not quite so lucky this day.She has just scored some fentanyl — what she calls “candy-coloured heroin” — and decides to light it up while chatting outside rather than popping into Safeworks — the controversial safe consumption site at the Sheldon M. Chumir Health Centre.She is standing at the side of the historic First Baptist Church, a short jaunt across 13th Avenue S.W. to Safeworks. Just as she finally gets her lighter to stay lit in the brisk wind, two Calgary Police Service constables roll up silently on their mountain bikes and break up the huddle. Lucky’s benign-looking pink-coloured drug is confiscated by a soft-spoken constable who handcuffs Lucky so he can safely handle the drug that can be deadly even in small doses.Lucky remains calm. She doesn’t have any warrants and says she has been clean for a month. She sits on the cold sidewalk in her white jeans, admiring her stylish knee-high black leather boots with their hot-pink soles.This is just one of at least eight police patrols spotted over six hours on Thursday around the health facility on 4th Street S.W. between 12th and 13th avenues.If drug dealers are hanging around to sell to Safeworks’ clients, they do a good job of remaining invisible. A steady stream of addicts come and go. They go in through the filthy door, and out through another one. Some mill about before or after but security guards, who work for Alberta Health Services, ask those loitering to move along.“I think the increased police presence has spooked the dealers,” says Adrian, 27, a seven-year addict who uses Safeworks twice a day to shoot up what he calls heroin but admits is actually fentanyl.“Things have really been cleaned up out here since early December,” adds Adrian. “I don’t have a problem with that because if bad stuff continues to happen around here there will be pressure to close Safeworks down, and then more people will die.”He’s right about that. In the 15 months that Safeworks has been operating, the agency says 800 overdoses were reversed out of its more than 48,000 visits since it first opened its doors in October 2017.He’s also right about a growing chorus of upset business owners and residents who either want Safeworks relocated or for a greater and sustained police presence around the site to help keep the dealers away and the users inside.On Tuesday, the Calgary Police Service released a much-anticipated report that shows that crime around the consumption site has spiked since Safeworks started providing a safe place for addicts to ingest their street drugs.While drug crimes in the rest of the city are declining, the crime and disorder report shows a 250-metre zone near Safeworks has seen a 276-per-cent increase in drug-related calls to police in 2018, along with a 29-per-cent rise in the overall number of calls for service compared with the three-year average.Violence in the area is up nearly 50 per cent, while vehicle crime has increased 63 per cent. Break-and-enters are also up by more than 60 per cent and the total number of calls to police jumped 36 per cent in 2018 compared with the previous year.Karlene Nacolajsen, who works day shifts at Shelf Life Books on the east side of 4th Street across the street from the Sheldon Chumir Centre, says the “social dysfunction” has improved somewhat in the past month or two.“We were finding used needles in our washroom and people were going in there for half an hour, so we just keep it locked now and that has really helped,” she said. “So has an increased police presence.”David McMechan, chair of the maintenance and finance committee at First Baptist Church, says the congregation has had to put up a black metal fence around the church office and parking lot to protect congregants and visitors from “some anti-social behaviour and refuse.”“We basically now check for needles first thing every morning and usually find some,” says the diligent church volunteer. “We’ve hired canine security to make rounds four times a day, seven days a week and we’re putting in security cameras,” he said. Is he upset?“No,” he says with a shrug. “Jesus calls on us to love our neighbours and these vulnerable people are our neighbours,” he says with a sweep of his hand toward about six men standing outside the Safeworks door. “We want to always welcome them and love them, but we also recognize that we are responsible for keeping our property safe for children and others who come here, so we have to do what we can. We’re trying to find the right balance.”Like Nacolajsen, McMechan says he thinks things have improved somewhat in the past month. In one week in November, four people overdosed in the church parking lot, which is traumatic for visitors and staff. Fortunately, help is literally just steps away.As for Lucky, the police let her go free. When she sees me she runs over to give me a big hug. “Those were nice cops,” she says excitedly. “They let me go with a warning. They’ll charge me if I use on the street again, so I’m not going to do that anymore. I’ll go inside next time.”Lesson learned. With her illicit drugs seized, Lucky has decided to keep her appointment on the Chumir’s 8th floor where she is part of a pilot program — Injectable Opioid Agonist Therapy (IOAT) — where she receives free hydromorphone three times a day under the supervision of medical professionals to help wean her off of street drugs. For Lucky, maybe getting arrested was lucky after all.
David McMechan, chair of First Baptist Church’s maintenance and finance committee, stands in front of the new wrought-iron fencing put up around the old manse. The fencing has been installed to prevent “some anti-social behaviour and refuse” on church grounds.
Mountain bike police officers arrest Lucky after they catch her smoking fentanyl on the street across from Safeworks.
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