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Advocates, downtown Toronto councillors express concern over overdose-prevention site cuts

Kapri Rabin of Street Health says her organization is one of many that for the last nine months has been running an overdose prevention site which has helped reverse over 30 overdoses.

Downtown city councillors and overdose-prevention advocates are calling on the provincial government to reverse its decision to cut the funding of two Toronto overdose-prevention sites and review the operating status of a third.

“Overdoses are the leading cause of death for young people in our province and supervised consumption sites are a proven life-saving healthcare model,” Ward 10 Coun. Joe Cressy told Global News on Saturday.

Cressy oversees much of the downtown core on council and is the chair of the city’s Board of Health.

READ MORE: Ontario government announces 15 overdose-prevention sites across the province

“The very reason we have these sites is to keep people alive long enough that they have time to access treatment,” he said. “That’s clearly not the priority for this provincial government.”

The sites allow those with drug addictions to get rehabilitation supports as well as a safe place to use their drugs.

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VIDEO: Advocates and city councillors are expressing concerns Saturday over a recent Ontario government announcement that funding for overdose prevention sites across the province was being cut. Matthew Bingley reports.

Outcry over cuts to Toronto overdose prevention sites
Outcry over cuts to Toronto overdose prevention sites

In changes announced Friday afternoon, the Ford government said that, following a review of the province’s overdose-prevention sites, 15 of the 21 would be allowed to remain open in Ontario.

Three sites, meanwhile, were told to close their doors by Monday, while three others remain under review.

Two of the sites told to close are in Toronto and one location under review is the city’s Victoria Street location.

READ MORE: Ontario government extends overdose prevention sites’ licences as review continues

However, since that announcement, Cressy said Toronto was able to receive legal exemptions from the federal government for the sites to remain open, except without funding from the province.

“The federal government stepped up to immediately provide the legal exemption for these sites to stay open, albeit without funding,” Cressy said. “So what’s going to happen on Monday morning is these sites will still be open, they’re just going to have to hold bake sales in order to provide life-saving healthcare.”

WATCH: MPP tours Kingston overdose prevention site (November, 2018)

MPP tours Kingston overdose prevention site
MPP tours Kingston overdose prevention site
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Following Friday’s announcement, Ward 13-Toronto Centre Coun. Kristyn Wong-Tam also expressed concern.

“[It is] wrong to shut down any health service without proper notice to clients or even a service transition plan,” she tweeted.

Mayor John Tory also expressed concern over what he called “extremely disturbing” changes.

READ MORE: Amid an opioid crisis, Canadians back ‘compulsory treatment,’ poll shows. But does it work?

The provincial government, however, said it is focused on providing supports for “treatment and rehabilitation services” through the approval of the 15 sites throughout the province, but did not address the closures and continued reviews of the six sites.

“Our government takes the opioids crisis very seriously,” Christine Elliott, the Minister of Health and Long-Term Care said in a statement. “That’s why we’ve created a new Consumption and Treatment Services model that will continue to save lives by preventing overdoses and connecting people to primary care, treatment, rehabilitation, and other health and social services to ensure those struggling with drug addiction get the help they need.”

READ MORE: Public Health reveals 629 Ontarians died from opioid overdoses in first six months last year

The province also said it will continue to accept applications for overdose-prevention sites and approve those which provide “evidence of community support” while “addressing local needs.”

The provincial government is expected to provide $31 million in annual funding to the sites that are approved and a promised $3.8 billion over the next 10 years into a mental health and addictions treatment strategy.

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During the election campaign last spring, then-candidate Doug Ford said he was opposed to safe-injection sites and overdose-prevention sites.

Zoe Dodd of the Toronto Overdose Prevention Society said those views are likely the main reasons behind the changes.

“Here we have a government that was ideologically opposed to supervised injection services and overdose prevention sites,” Dodd said. “The sites that they have decided not to fund are sites that do see a lot of people and they see different populations of people.”

WATCH: ‘We will listen’: Doug Ford won’t commit to overdose-prevention sites (August, 2018)

‘We will listen’: Doug Ford won’t commit to overdose-prevention sites
‘We will listen’: Doug Ford won’t commit to overdose-prevention sites

Dodd said she estimates one of the locations which is expected to lose funding, Street Health near Dundas and Sherbourne, costs $250,000 to operate for one year.

The other Toronto location which will lose funding is in Kensington Market.

“It’s still stressful for those organizations because you need funds to run your programs,” she said.

Dodd said she prevented six overdoses in the span of three hours on Friday, a sign of the seriousness of the opioid crisis in Canada.

In the first six months of last year, 629 Ontarians died from opioid overdoses, 80 more than the same time in the previous year.

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Street Health, an overdose-prevention site located near Dundas and Sherbourne, is one of sites which will lose provincial funding as of Monday.
Street Health, an overdose-prevention site located near Dundas and Sherbourne, is one of sites which will lose provincial funding as of Monday. Global News

With files from the Canadian Press

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