In 2018 a man walked into the Beakerhead office on 4th street close to Safeworks. He was clearly in distress needing to use. I watched my co-workers freeze and one picked up the phone to call the police. We were two blocks away from the Chumir. I stood up and introduced myself, asked his name, and offered to walk him down to the site. My friend and co-worker joined me as we walked and made small talk about the weather.
The province is set to close Safeworks, the Safe Consumption Site at the Sheldon Chumir with plans to reallocate to 'partner organizations' (likely shelters) according to this recent article. I worry about the strain on social agencies to provide increased care and service for vulnerable populations. I see the continued stigma and assumptions made about users.
Access to a site assumes you are proximal or have means to use transportation to arrive. It also assumes the site will feel safe, welcoming, and inclusive. We have users of all genders, ethnicities, and span socio-economic statuses who need a site. Have these factors been considered when choosing new locations?
First - locations should have been chosen in partnership with the City of Calgary. I am not certain this is the case.
Second - by moving the consumption sites to shelter or social agency sites, we are stigmatizing who uses and casting a broad assumption that all users are homeless or living in the shelter system. We know this isn't the case.
I will say that I support having locations within social service agencies IF there are other sites as well and IF those sites are staffed (funded) by the province and the expectation of staffing does not suddenly become part of the agency's operating budget without funding from the Province.
Third - the recognition that need for sites does not exist solely in the beltline or downtown core; drug use is not a geographic phenomenon.
The need for MORE sites exists. We see this in the number of users at the Chumir site, and in the spillover for the users who are unable to access the site. I have spoken with communities and Calgary Police who see users at sites such as transit stations - because they are monitored with cameras and help buttons.
There isn't one answer to solving the challenges associated with drug use. I believe we need a comprehensive approach that is supported by the Province and the City which support both users and communities. We need funding for mental health care, housing, safe consumption sites, addictions treatment, and funding for social service agencies as early interveners. We need training for our first responders, bylaw and transit officers, and community leaders to be part of the solution in communities.
Mostly we need to talk about users as people - humans with complex emotions, needs, and histories. We need to see that we are all part of the problem when we stigmatize users but can also be part of the solution when we see users as humans who are for their own reasons, in a position where drug use is part of their life. Is this easy, not always. I believe we need to keep talking about it, openly and candidly. I am committed to these conversations to support all Calgarians regardless of the situation they find themselves in.