Yesterday, concerned harm reduction workers and activists opened an overdose prevention tent in Moss Park. I cannot blame them. Toronto has been facing an increasingly deadly opioid crisis and they are seeing their friends, colleagues and clients overdose on a daily basis. Communities are suffering. The response from governments has not been fast enough or sufficient to address this public health crisis. My colleague, Councillor Joe Cressy, recently wrote in the Toronto Star about the need for an emergency response, and I completely agree.
The installation of Supervised Injection Services (SIS) in Toronto cannot come any sooner. Toronto Public Health has moved as quickly as they can to address the increase in overdoses, through training and the distribution of Naloxone, but it still is not fast enough to respond to the emergency we are facing. In the next month, they will begin distributing Naloxone to community agencies, so that those working with the most vulnerable will be trained and equipped with Naloxone, in order to respond to opioid overdoses. The City of Toronto is expediting the Overdose Action Plan as quickly as it can, but a coordinated and sustained response with adequate resources must come from all three levels of government.
Research shows that a drug user will likely only travel about four city blocks for SIS and with only three opening in the city, it will not stop all of the deaths. Stopping overdoses should not be our only response. Outreach and harm reduction workers have expressed for years that the wait times for those seeking treatment is far too long and clients lapse back into drug use, putting them at further risk of death. We need to have options available for people to live healthy lives, including mental health counselling, addiction treatment, affordable housing, and other supports.
All governments must work together to break down the communication and operational silos that exist between publicly funded service providers. The structural service deficits that are further enabling the opioid crisis has to be addressed with coherent and centralized leadership, coordinating the collection and sharing of disaggregated data and swiftly implementing best practice solutions driven by harm reduction principles with measured and accountable outcomes to creating healthier communities.
Toronto downtown neighbourhoods are bearing the brunt of the opioid crisis. This year alone, I have organized eight community safety walks in various neighbourhoods in Ward 27, in response to concerns about the impacts of drug activity, vandalism, street harassment and escalating violence. Residents are seeing active drug trafficking and public use of harmful substances in the parks, laneways, stairwells, school yards, playgrounds, parking lots, community spaces and random streets. Discarded needles are being found by community members and city workers by the hundreds each month. Front line advocates are experiencing all-time high levels of post-traumatic disorder from the witnessing of people dying from drug overdoses. The spirit-breaking social conditions caused by the opioid crisis are unacceptable.
A police-only response to drug use is not the answer. Toronto Police Services could spend their days locking up drug-using individuals and still the “war on drugs” will not be won. Instead, we will continue to see more overdoses, as drug users seek out more hidden, precarious places to use drugs, putting themselves, and possibly others at further risk.
While, I may not agree that the “pop-up Overdose Prevention Site” is the best use of our few downtown parks and have concerns about the legalities of this activity, I also do not want to see any more deaths. A makeshift tent in Moss Park is not a suitable or permanent solution, but it is a response that is not unexpected considering all that is happening in the all-out efforts to save lives.
I have reached out to Mayor Tory, the Chairs of the Toronto Drug Strategy & Board of Health to work with them to expedite the opening of the Safe Injection Sites. Community health centres and public health workers are already trained, Naloxone kits are in place and Toronto should be allowed to open the three federally-approved SIS sites today. If harm reduction advocates are willing to legally expose themselves to save lives in Moss Park, then politicians can do the same.