Hundreds turn out for tense public forum on supervised consumption site

By Scott Roblin
February 13, 2019 - 11:28pm Updated: February 14, 2019 - 7:11pm

 

MEDICINE HAT, AB – A lively, spirited, and even tense few hours of discussion was held by stakeholders of the supervised consumption site at the Beveridge Building on Wednesday evening.

Close to 200 people gathered for a forum hosted by the Centre-View Condo Association, the first meeting open to all of the public since the location of the site was announced last month.

The majority of the meeting had to do with the announced location of the site, 502 South Railway Street SE, with many people from the audience raising concerns over the location.

This included some from the Centre-View condos who live within 100 feet of the site, neighbours from the South East hill, local pathway users, and business owners from the area.

HIV Community Link, who are heading up the supervised site, were in attendance for the almost two hour long meeting.

Executive director Leslie Hill said there were plenty of concerns raised and was glad her team was there to hear them.

“There were lots of people who were really supportive and lots of people who had concerns, questions, and worries about their safety and livelihoods,” said Hill. “Those are really important and it’s important for us to hear those so that we can plan to mitigate those concerns.”

A number of residents weren’t only against the supervised consumption site being located on South Railway Street, but opposed the project entirely.

Shane Halaska, who lives on top of the South East hill, was one of those people and said he’s frustrated that this program was seemingly imposed on his neighbourhood.

“The community should have a say in what comes into the community,” said Halaska. “They can’t be mandated or forced into doing something that they don’t want to do.”

MP Glen Motz, MLA Drew Barnes, Medicine Hat Police Insp. Brent Secondiak, and a number of Medicine Hat City councillors were in attendance for the meeting and spoke at various times.

They were invited by Centre-View Condo Association president Marci Marshall, who stated they weren’t properly consulted with before the decision at 502 South Railway Street was made.

“I don’t feel that putting these sites within 100 feet of homes is the right thing to do, I really don’t,” said Marshall. “Especially, when those people have had zero consultation on it. There’s nothing that they can say that’s going to make me feel any better about it being right in front of my house.”

Her concerns primarily revolve around a possible spike in crime, needle debris in the area, decreasing property values, and a fear of an increase of methamphetamine use near her condos.

Halaska meanwhile came out against the notion of a supervised consumption site, saying he doesn’t believe it’s the right solution to Medicine Hat’s opioid problem.

“If you give them treatment and you give them rehabilitation they will be able to help themselves, the community can go behind it and they can back that,” said Halaska. “But, you can’t back somebody who’s going enable bad behaviour or an addict.”

However, a number of people did show their support for the site and the positive effects it could have on the city.

Megan Westgarth and her mother Colleen spoke at length about their brother and son Michael, who recently passed away due to a drug overdose.

According to Megan, a facility like a supervised consumption site is needed desperately in Medicine Hat and added she didn’t want any other families to suffer her pain.

“My brother died alone,” said Westgarth. “He died of prescription drugs, alcohol, and street drugs. He died in shame and in guilt, and literally a week before he passed away he told someone close to him that he was better than this.”

According to Medicine Hat Police there were two overdose deaths in 2016, followed by seven in 2017, and eight between the months of January and September in 2018.

Communication was an issue many residents and business owners brought up over the evening, saying they weren’t notified of the South Railway Street location until it was announced by HIV Community Link.

Hill said they sent out around 6,000 postcards to residents within one kilometre of the downtown tunnel, while they notified the next door neighbours as soon as they confirmed the site’s location.

“That consultation process with the immediate neighbours started as soon as we knew we had a location,” said Hill. “That’s something that’s ongoing and will continue for likely years, because we really want to make sure that we’re being pro-active, responsive, and that we understand people’s concerns.”

Some, like Halaska, didn’t buy the explanation however as he only heard about the supervised consumption site when it was released to the public.

“I for one didn’t receive any notification whatsoever,” said Halaska. “Two weeks ago was the first I heard of it, then a week ago when they decided to have a forum here, that’s when I decided to come down.”

Marshall has since started a petition to Health Canada to have a hold placed on any further movement regarding the supervised consumption site until more consultation and feedback is had.

However, Hill said time is of the essence when it comes to fighting the opioid epidemic.

“There are people in Medicine Hat who are dying and people who are at risk of dying every day,” said Hill. “Those numbers go up year over year for the last number of years. So, the longer we put a hold on a public health crisis, the more challenging it is to make sure we’re keeping communities safe.”

Westgarth shared those same feelings, adding more people in Medicine Hat will lose their lives if the process doesn’t move forward quickly.

“The longer we wait, the more people will die,” said Westgarth. “There is a saying and it’s, ‘They talk, we die.’ And, I feel that is very appropriate, especially with placing a hold on the [supervised] consumption site.”

HIV Community Link estimates around 100 people would access the supervised site per day, however concerns still remain around safety.

According to Insp. Secondiak, the area surrounding Lethbridge’s site has seen a 30 percent increase in crime since opening compared to a four percent jump in the rest of the city.

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