The federal agency has approved applications for two permanent facilities to be opened at 446 York St., currently a music store, and at 241 Simcoe St., a public housing high-rise. They’re located east and south of downtown, respectively.
Health Canada is also allowing the temporary overdose prevention site, which has been operated by the Regional HIV/AIDS Connection at 186 King Street since Feb. 12, to remain open while the permanent sites are in the works.
“This is a really, really positive development,” said Dr. Chris Mackie, the chief medical officer of health with the Middlesex-London Health Unit. “We were concerned about having to have a break in service at some point, which would really break the trust with our clients. That’s not going to happen.”
The temporary overdose prevention site has had nearly 10,000 visits by about 2,000 individual people since it opened, Lester said. Staff at the facility have reversed about 40 overdoses and given out more than 200 referrals to addiction treatment. The total cost of the temporary site is $200,000.
Securing proper municipal zoning and making sure the temporary and permanent sites adhere to newly released provincial guidelines are next steps, Mackie said.
“We have the application in to the municipal planning department at the City of London,” he said.
“This is a brand new type of application, so we need to clarify that process a bit, but we hope to be moving forward within the next two to three months for sure and then the building phase which we will execute as quickly as we can.”
The facilities had much support from politicians during London’s recent municipal election campaign. Mackie said he’s looking forward to working with the incoming city council on securing zoning for the permanent sites.
The health unit filed the applications for the permanent supervised drug-use sites with Health Canada in March. The federal government nod has been a long time coming, Regional HIV/AIDS Connection executive director Brian Lester said.
“We want to help people to live their healthiest outcome in their life,” he said. “Anchoring into permanent, ongoing facilities means that we can stabilize the staffing, we can make longer-term commitments, we can retain employees, they can count on their jobs, but most importantly, the people we serve can count on the service being there.”
That hasn’t always been a given.
During the provincial election campaign, Premier Doug Ford was openly critical of the sites. The temporary overdose prevention site – designed as an emergency response to a rash of deadly opioid overdoses in the city – was approved on an interim basis by the previous Liberal government.
After having its end date extended two times, the province has given the temporary overdose prevention site on King Street clearance to operate until year’s end, Mackie said.
Under the Health Canada approval, the site is allowed to stay open as an interim location while the permanent supervised drug-use facilities are being opened.
The province has also just released criteria and directives for the sites that the health unit is reviewing, Mackie said. With the federal approvals for the permanent sites in hand, the health unit will need to secure provincial approvals too.
At Thursday’s announcement recovering drug user and harm reduction outreach worker Andy MacLean said individuals struggling with addiction can feel like “throwaway” people.
The milestone federal approval for the two permanent sites means so much, MacLean said.
“It’s proof that we’re worth something. That’s such an amazing thing,” he said.