The Hamilton Spectator

‘Crisis is deepening ’: Hamilton council backs $667K for harm-reduction measures


Agencies on the front lines of Hamilton’s intersecti­ng opioid and homelessne­ss crises will share a $667,000 from the city to boost harm-reduction efforts.

That will keep the YWCA’s saferuse program operating through next March, which will prevent more drug-poisoning deaths amid a toxic supply, CEO Medora Uppal says.

“There’s no doubt in my mind we have prevented deaths. We have disrupted overdoses. We have kept people safe from harm.”

Of the $667,000, the YWCA will receive $300,000 for its program at the agency’s MacNab Street South location, while another $300,000 is to go toward a year-long “embedded” harm-reduction pilot for the men’s shelter system.

Rounding out the total, council has earmarked $67,000 for peer support for homeless people who use drugs, including those who live in encampment­s.

Those allocation­s represent a pivot from the city’s initial plan last June to invest $667,000 into a supervised drug consumptio­n pilot for the men’s shelter system, but no operators responded to a call for proposals.

So in January, staff suggested a harm-reduction pilot for men’s shelters as an alternativ­e, but after some debate, council asked for feedback from sector experts on how best to invest the funds to turn back the tide of drug-poisoning deaths as part of an overall opioid action plan.

The revised three-pronged approach is the result of that consultati­on, Coun. Maureen Wilson said Wednesday in presenting her motion, which gained majority support.

“We know this crisis is deepening and it requires focus and it requires leadership. We know that the crisis is aided and abetted by other factors such as poverty, inadequate housing and an overstretc­hed shelter-service system.”

The YWCA is not a men’s shelter, said Wilson, acknowledg­ing the proposal’s original target, but added the agency’s safer-use initiative has been “effective with zero deaths.”

In June, a staff report noted a “disproport­ionate impact” among men when it comes to drug-related harm and deaths, but men’s shelter operators flagged operationa­l and capital concerns with potentiall­y hosting a supervised consumptio­n site in their buildings, in addition to respond to an unrelentin­g homelessne­ss crisis.

A recent public health report pointed to an “ongoing toxic and unpredicta­ble drug supply” in Hamilton that’s driven by fentanyl with toxicology data showing most opioid-related deaths in Hamilton involve “at least one other substance.”

In 2023, there were 964 opioidrela­ted paramedic calls, which is the highest annual total recorded in Hamilton, the report noted. Last year, there were 199 suspect drugrelate­d deaths, based on preliminar­y coroner investigat­ions. That was down from the 221 in 2022 and 222 in 2021.

From January to December 2023, 65 per cent of suspect drug-related deaths happened in private residences. Other locations were outdoors (15 per cent) and congregate settings (11 per cent).

On Wednesday, the $67,000 for peer support, including at encampment­s, drew pushback from some city politician­s. Coun. Tom Jackson said he worried the measure could “entrench” tents in neighbourh­ood parks, which have regularly “flooded” his office with concerns from east Mountain constituen­ts.

There was also pushback on the YWCA’s allocation.

The agency is “certainly a very effective and valuable community partner and a worthy recipient” of more funding, Coun. John-Paul Danko said.

“However, in good conscience, I just cannot vote in favour of assigning public tax dollars on programs that enable drug use, programs that have disastrous community impacts.”

Supervised consumptio­n sites are “really the opposite” of what council’s focus should be, “which is addictions support, harm reduction and treatment,” Danko argued.

What the public “absolutely does not support is enabling drug use in their community,” he added, citing a fatal shooting near a site in Toronto last year and reports of associated problems in the United States.

But the experts and evidence underscore­s the success of supervised consumptio­n sites, Coun. Nrinder Nann responded.

“They are the folks who know these issues in our community in the most intimate, intricate and evidence-based way. They are folks who help save lives across our community.”

In an interview, Uppal said the YWCA’s safer-use space is “not about promoting drug use in any way,” but rather to “support people in finding their way out of drug use.”

Since it began in April 2022, the partnershi­p with the Hamilton Social Medicine Response Team and harm-reduction group Keeping Six has served 316 unique clients, who return to the space daily or several times a week, said Mary Vaccaro, the initiative’s co-ordinator.

During that time, the program has responded to 78 drug poisonings. “And there’s been zero deaths,” said Vaccaro, noting 7,896 visits between March 2023 and March 2024.

The YWCA has relied on funding from the Hamilton Community Foundation and other donors to run the safer-use space, Uppal said. It has operated as a temporary urgent public health needs site under Health Canada. The plan was to work toward provincial funding under Ontario’s consumptio­n and treatment services (CTS) model, but the Tory government has paused applicatio­ns during a review, she noted.

Hamilton Urban Core Community Health Centre operates the only CTS site in the city at St. Paul’s Presbyteri­an Church on James Street South.

Such live-saving resources are crucial, Uppal emphasized, pointing to a poisoned drug supply that can lead to unintentio­nal deaths.

“You can’t help people if people are dead,” she said.

You can’t help people if people are dead.


 ?? CATHIE COWARD SPECTATOR FILE PHOTO ?? The YWCA’s safer-use space has responded to 78 drug poisonings since it opened in April 2022. During that time, there were no deaths.
CATHIE COWARD SPECTATOR FILE PHOTO The YWCA’s safer-use space has responded to 78 drug poisonings since it opened in April 2022. During that time, there were no deaths.

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