LETHBRIDGE, AB — Residents have been hounding Lethbridge City Council for months and months to do something about the local opioid crisis.
Mayor Chris Spearman has relayed time and again it’s a joint venture with the province to deal with the issue, and on Friday, Dec. 7, the province announced a few new supports that will be coming in 2019.
A new, permanent supportive housing complex for Lethbridge will support adults experiencing homelessness who have complex issues such as substance use. The $11 million project will provide safe accommodations for 42 people.
In addition, the provincial government is investing $1.6 million to create up to 30 new intox spaces in the city, and these spaces will provide a safe place for people to stay while they sober up. Intox services can help reduce disruption to neighbourhoods and businesses, and also include access to services like housing programs and health care.
Environment Minister and Lethbridge-West MLA Shannon Phillips was on hand for the announcement at City Hall and spoke about the impact the drug crisis is having locally.
“Lethbridge is facing a very serious opioid crisis, it’s one of the worst in Canada. Not just in terms of overdose deaths but homelessness and other issues in the downtown, so we’re responding to these concerns,” Phillips said.
“This is a very, very complex and challenging issue. It’s a tough issue for families to deal with, we know we have lots of people here in Lethbridge who are struggling with opioid addictions, so we need to make sure that we have services in place in the health care system to meet those needs.
“On top of that, we also have a homelessness issue. We have issues related to petty crime, we have issues related to the vibrancy of the downtown. In all of that the province needs to respond, it’s a public health crisis, a housing crisis, as well as a law enforcement crisis. It has to be a full response because one particular thing won’t solve the problem.”
In the first six months of 2018, 17 people in Lethbridge died of an apparent opioid overdose. Since opening, the supervised consumption services site in Lethbridge, operated by ARCHES, has seen more than 71,000 client visits – which is one of the highest numbers in Canada.
As of Sept. 30, over 620 overdoses have been reversed by staff at ARCHES, so implementing these new supports will be the next step in the process of saving lives according to Lethbridge-East MLA Maria Fitzpatrick.
“I come from 32 and a half years of working in corrections, so I certainly had a lot of experience with people who had addictions. I live on the north side of the city, I see people who have addictions issues every day when I’m at home. I know if we put the right things in place we can engage people in their addictions so they can heal, and be law-abiding citizens in our community,” Fitzpatrick said, adding they’re providing everything they can provide to give the City of Lethbridge what they’ve been asking for.
When asked about the negativity and backlash surrounding the supervised consumption site, Fitzpatrick responded that had to come first because you can’t save people in terms of their addictions if they’re not alive.
“The first thing you had to do was save lives. Now with the wraparound services that have been announced today, I think the businesses are going to see a positive impact because they’re not going to have people hanging around their business,” Fitzpatrick continued. “You’re going to see a drop in petty crime, you’re going to see the positive responses from all of those pillars.”
The province is also expanding an option for people to receive opioid agonist therapy (OAT), such as methadone and Suboxone, in Lethbridge and other areas.
The Virtual Opioid Dependency Program (VODP) connects patients wanting to start OAT with prescribers in other parts of the province through video conferencing.OAT treatments can help people who use opioids to stabilize their lives.
Recent studies also show that patients who initiate OAT are less likely to commit petty crime.
Lethbridge Police Chief Rob Davis says this investment in harm reduction, treatment and permanent housing opportunities is a welcome step to help break the cycle of addiction and reduce the impacts of the drug crisis.
“This is a step in the right direction to start addressing our issues. The public has to respect this isn’t going to happen overnight, this is a long game we’re into, this is a crisis we’ve never seen the likes of in this province.”
Between the supports announced today, and the initiatives approved by City Council’s finance committee for LPS, Davis absolutely believes some progress on the crisis will be made in the new year.
“But again, we have to manage expectations. People think this is going to happen overnight, that’s not going to happen, but are we going to see steady improvements? Absolutely. This announcement today is going to help move us in that direction.
“The funding for the initiatives will move us in the right direction, and we’re going through negotiations for a better deployment schedule, so we’ll have officers working when we need them to help the community feel safe. All in all, the announcements from the budget deliberations and the announcements today, are all lining up to make the city a better place,” Davis said.
The way in which the drug crisis, not only in Lethbridge but around the country, has exploded year over year is something that nobody saw coming and as a result, Davis says police and other first responders are overwhelmed.
“In 2014 when police services across the country were talking about the next four years, nobody saw the drug crisis hitting the way it did,” he continued. “So now we’re playing catch-up and that’s the biggest frustration, we’re dealing with a crisis no one anticipated but the announcement today is helping us with the long game going forward.”
Mayor Chris Spearman, for better or worse, has had to bear the brunt of a lot of the community concerns amid the crisis. Asked what this day means to him, he quickly responded that it’s a great day for the City of Lethbridge.
“We’ve listened to the citizens, we’ve listened to our partners in the community, and now we’ve finally got funded for all four of the programs that we were asking for support from the province. Tremendous that we now have a detox facility open in the city, now we’ve been funded for intox in the city, supported housing that’s so desperately needed and the treatment program for addicts,” Spearman said.
Spearman has spoken at length about the needs for these programs and supports in Lethbridge and says because of this being a drug issue and a health issue, they needed provincial support.
“Opening up only the supervised consumption site created additional problems, it highlighted the fact that we lacked these services and today they’ve been funding,” he continued. “Now the issue we will have now is how quickly we can put them in place because we will still have those issues until they’re up and running.”
Spearman says they want to work together effectively as partners with the provincial government to make sure these services are in place as soon as possible to serve the community and minimize the negative aspects related to the drug issue in Lethbridge.
As far as the location for said facilities, Spearman says ‘not in my backyard’ is always going to be a challenge but they plan to work very effectively.
“I think the whole community knows that these are needed services, that we need to address the issues with addicts in the city, and until we do everyone is going to suffer. These are very controlled facilities that are up and running in other areas, and there are virtually no issues in neighbourhoods where they’ve been located,” Spearman stated, adding they need to look at it positively and not create issues before they happen.
Alberta Health also announced a new safe withdrawal management site on the Blood Tribe on Thursday, Dec. 5, that will provide addiction treatment services.
The programs and facilities in Lethbridge will have different opening dates, but Phillips mentioned early 2019 for the supportive housing complex and sometime in 2019 for the 30 new intox spaces.
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