New safe drug consumption and treatment site opens
​in downtown Kitchener on October 15

Region of Waterloo Public Health Nurse Heather Elliott stands in front of the two consumption booths located at the new drug consumption site at 150 Duke Street West in Kitchener. Photo by Carrie Debrone
By Carrie Debrone
Kitchener Citizen
October 7, 2019​​

​Waterloo region’s first drug consumption and treatment site opened in downtown Kitchener will open on October 15.

The site allows people to use their own drugs under the supervision of medically trained workers. Users are provided with sterile consumption supplies, education on safer consumption, overdose preven-tion and intervention, and can access medical and counselling services, referrals to drug treatment, housing, income support and other services.

In May 2019, Kitchener council approved the site
location at 150 Duke Street West (corner of Duke
and College Streets). Described as an “interim”
​facility, the new centre is much smaller than ​it
​will end up being after renovations to the building
​are completed sometime early next year that will transform it into a permanent centre.

The interim site, located on the building’s second floor, will operate continuously throughout the remainder of construction. The centre is open seven days a week from 9am to 9pm.

It offers two injection booths in a private room that is supervised by a nurse trained in medical emergencies, who can also provide education around illegal drug use, a post-consumption room (chill out room) that is monitored by a social support worker, an intake area staffed by a peer worker where users are asked to fill out a form stating what type of drug they are using, and a room dedicated to the safe disposal of needles. A security guard will be posted at the main entrance to direct people upstairs. A supervisor will also be on duty.

The region has spent years talking about and planning for the new site.

Its goal is to save lives by reducing the number of fatal and near-fatal drug overdoses, reduce the spread of infectious diseases like HIV and Hepatitis C among people who inject drugs, connect drug users with addictions treatment and social services like housing, and create a safer community by reducing drug use in public spaces and providing options for proper needle disposal.

“This is more than a place for consumption of drugs. This is about creating a portal to other services that people may need to address other health or social problems,” said Grace Burmingham, Manager of Harm Reduction for Region of Waterloo Public Health.

According to a regional government community services committee report, the estimated operating cost of the site will be $802,000 per year. The capital cost of setting up the interim site is an estimated $438,000. The total cost of developing the permanent centre is not yet known as the region is still waiting to hear how much funding it will receive from the provincial government.

Since 2015, 911 overdose related calls to Waterloo Region paramedic services have increased greatly. Sixty-one people died from opioid overdoses in 2018, and there have been 48 suspected overdose deaths from January to October this year.

With the number of local deaths consistently trending over the provincial average, the public health department saw the need for a safe consumption site and began a public consultation process several years ago that included online surveys, interviews, visioning sessions and focus groups.

Public health officials that spoke at a media tour of the new site last week said they will continue to address any concerns neighbours of the site bring forward, and they are planning open houses, distributing newsletters and sending out emails asking for feedback and responding to requests for support.

Greatly anticipated, health officials said it takes a whole team and partnerships at many levels to open a centre like this one.

“It’s difficult to describe how excited we are about this long overdue opening of a site like this,” said Dr. Chris Steingart, Executive Director of the Sanguen Health Centre that will run the site with the support of public health. He added that there is “still a lot to learn” about how the site will be used.

Steingart said too many people in this region wake up not knowing if they are going to survive the day, and that the new site is part of a harm reduction response that now can focus on reduction and prevention of overdose deaths.

According to police officers who spoke at the media tour, it’s not clear how many people will use the new site, how long it will take until people feel comfortable going there, or what impact it will have.

Users will be able to consume and possess illegal drugs while inside the site, but once outside the facility there is no protected zone.

Emphasizing that drug use is a complex problem, Inspector Mark Crowell said people using the site should be able to use it without feeling like the police are constantly watching them.

However, he also emphasized that the police want to make sure the public is safe, so each interaction between the police and a drug user must be individually assessed to achieve a balance between the public good and the individual’s rights.

“We strongly support this initiative. We know we can’t arrest our way out of this (drug) crisis,” he said.

He said the police will continue to focus mainly on drug trafficking, and will be maintaining the current number of zone officers on foot and on bicycles in the downtown area, as well as beat and community resource officers.

“We don’t know how many people are using illegal drugs behind closed doors, he said.

Stats from around the world presented at the tour show there has been no dramatic increase in crime in places where similar consumption sites have been set up. About half of the sites in another study reported that there was a reduction in injections being done in public and safer needle disposal practices where consumption centers were located.

All agreed the site will continue to be a work in progress.

“It will take some time for clients to get used to the new site. It’s a new experience for them and for the people running it. There’s a lot we don’t know yet,” Birmngham said, adding that “people are really pleased this service is going forward.”
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