The Hamilton Spectator
Facts prove safer-use drug spaces work in Hamilton
I am writing on behalf of those who often have no voice at decisionmaking tables. People who use drugs and unhoused people continue to be displaced and pushed outside the margins of our community, causing severe harm and trauma.
In the broader sense, the COVID-19 pandemic continues alongside the housing crisis and drug poisoning crisis.
This triad of crises has led to the death of five unhoused people at the Salvation Army Booth Centre and countless more overdosing in the same place where during a severe COVID-19 outbreak, a safer use site was set up temporarily within 72 hours to protect the public. We must ask ourselves why the Salvation Army was willing to protect the public, but they have taken no tangible actions to implement safer use to protect their very own residents as the body count continues to rise.
Evidence-based harm reduction policies and practices must be enacted with consistency across the shelter system. This should include safer use spaces, the provision of harm reduction supplies without surveillance, ending service restrictions related to substance use, and installing sharps disposal containers in all washroom stalls. Safer use spaces have many benefits, including reducing the workload on emergency medical services and police, which is cost-saving across the health-care system. For example, from April 2022 to Jan. 19, 2023, the YWCA safer use space has made one call to EMS and no calls made to the police. Prior to the YWCA implementing a safer use space, staff were calling 911 at least once a day.
As this is no longer the case, there are cost savings associated with this program for the larger system. This data cannot be ignored as it demonstrates safer use spaces save taxpayer dollars, and most importantly save lives.
There exists an opportunity to turn this preventable tragedy around by following harm reduction principles that have been well established by people with lived and living experience, and health experts.
Many local peer-based groups are more than willing to intervene to help co-develop safer use spaces across the shelter system, in addition to comprehensive harm reduction training and overdose prevention training. These groups have been met with resistance from shelter providers. Shelter providers should be taking advantage of this wonderful opportunity to learn from those they serve or have served. To oppose this measure is to be complicit in causing harm and continuing to put countless lives at risk.
There is no other way to express our extreme sorrow that this is the situation we find ourselves in. By not responding to the tragic loss of five lives and many other unhoused folks dying on the street from drug poisonings, it demonstrates that unhoused people who use drugs do not matter. It contributes to the stigmatizing narrative that drug use is a moral failing and that people who use drugs are bad people deserving of pain.
People who use drugs matter and we are strongly urging city council and shelter providers to step up with concrete evidence-based solutions in the form of harm reduction measures, including safer use spaces that will dramatically improve the health and well-being of unhoused people who use drugs.
Harm reduction is an approach that must be seamlessly woven and adopted in shelters and within the community. Drug use is with us wherever we go. As Coun. Brad Clark indicated at the general issues committee meeting, data demonstrates that overdoses are occurring across all wards in Hamilton. We must make every door the right door for people who use drugs that are looking for support and we must do so with compassion and without judgment.
Safer use spaces in shelters are an inexpensive life-saving measure and it should be top priority for the board of health committee as this is an urgent public health need.
Every drug poisoning death is preventable and a clear policy failure. We urge city council to be the agent of impactful change we need in our community to save lives.