THUNDER BAY – An overdose prevention site designed to save lives and end stigmas surrounding addiction will remain open until the end of the month as long-term funding is sought, but health care professionals say more work needs to be done educating the community and reaching out to those who could benefit the most from the service.
The overdose prevention site at the NorWest Community Health Centre has been open for more than a month and Juanita Lawson, CAO of the Health Centre, said while she did not have any finalized numbers as of yet, usage has been slower than she had hoped.
“I think that is to be expected given the fact that it is winter and we need to build trust within the community and the people that would come and use the site that it is a safe place to come,” she said.
“We have heard from some individuals that there is a concern that police will be called as soon as they arrive on site with their illicit substances. So those are some of the things we expected.”
The site, located inside the NorWest Community Health Centre on Simpson Street, provides people a safe space to use illicit drugs under the supervision of health care professionals. It also provides linkages to other harm-reduction, mental health, and addiction services.
According to Lawson, a number of people have come to the site to look at the space, speak with staff, and pick up harm-reduction materials like needles.
“We’ve actually had a number of clients who have come and been really appreciative of the fact that they can now use the service and, with staff supervision, feel safe and also receive information about other services that they might be able to offer,” Lawson said.
The site was granted temporary status last October and opened at the end of November under a new model announced by the Ministry of Health. The provincial government said it would approve 21 consumption and treatment services across the province.
Initially, the site in Thunder Bay was to only be open until Dec. 31, but has since been granted an extension to remain open until Jan. 31.
“We are hoping, probably in the next couple of weeks, that we will be notified we will be able to be open longer,” Lawson said. “We have submitted our application to the Ministry which is to look at long-term stable funding, and we are working with the Ministry to make sure that happens in a timely manner.”
Research has shown that overdose prevention sites can save lives, Lawson said, and given the increasing number of overdose related deaths and hospitalizations in the city, it is important to reach out to not only those who need these services, but to educate the community about why they are so crucial.
“One of the things we are doing is a lot of outreach and engaging with our community partners and going to locations where we know there are individuals we want to engage with and building rapport and building relationships with them,” Lawson said.
Lawson added that everyone in the community has a responsibility to educate themselves and understand what the real issues are and why people are engaging with illicit substances.
“I think there is a compassion we want people to have,” she said. “But I think people need to do their own reflection on why there is so much stigma and discrimination that comes with a belief that when people use substances and when they get into being addicted that it’s because of their own choice.
“I don’t think people have come to this situation in their lives freely,” she said. “We are learning from a number of our clients that they have experienced lots of trauma and those are some of the things we want to work with people on.”