About 100 people were in attendance at an open house in downtown Calgary on Wednesday discussing safe consumption sites.
The public engagement session, hosted by the provincial government, is one of several being held across Alberta this month.
Sandra Clarkson, executive director of the Calgary Drop-in Centre, said she was happy with the turnout at the event.
“I was pleased to see that there were some really great balanced viewpoints that were brought forward,” Clarkson said. “It’s an emotional, complex issue and I think that people delivered their messages respectfully.”
The panel, appointed by Associate Minister of Mental Health and Addictions Jason Luan and chaired by former Edmonton police chief Rod Knecht, will gather feedback on the social and economic impacts that supervised consumption services have on Albertan’s homes, businesses and communities.
Panels have already been held in Medicine Hat, Lethbridge and Red Deer, and a survey can be filled out online.
“We had a tremendous turnout — and I would say even online we’re kind of shocked at the number of people that have filled out online surveys,” Knecht said.
“What we want is for people to have had their say. What we’re trying to do is get as much information from as many Albertans as possible about how they feel.”
There are currently four supervised consumption sites in Edmonton, one in Calgary and one each in Grande Prairie and Lethbridge.
Kenney’s United Conservative government announced in June it was pausing funding for proposed supervised consumption sites in Alberta, saying it wanted to look at the impact the current sites have on communities.
“The game plan originally was we’d do the town halls in September, we would look at the online data, the academic papers — that sort of thing — in October, write up a report in November and issue it to the government in December … we might have to extend that a little bit just because of the amount of information,” Knecht explained.
The pros and cons of consumption sites: what people are saying
Speaking to Global News on Wednesday, Knecht said the open houses have seen a “real diversity of comments.”
“We get a lot of people that are very pro, a lot of people that are against, and everything in between.”
For his part, attendee Merle Terlesky, who frequents the Sheldon M. Chumir Centre to visit his doctor, said it’s “getting kind of risky” going into the building, which is the site of Calgary’s safe consumption services.
“The clinic washroom is not really a place you want to be,” Terlesky said. “It’s not comfortable in there, you don’t feel comfortable.”
“I really think it’s a balance. There is some success in dropping the rate of (overdoses) and the flourishment of HIV with dirty needles, but you need to weigh that against the damage to public property, robberies, prostitution, everything that comes with this.”
“I don’t think we have strong enough legislation for sentencing when it comes to people bringing fentanyl onto the streets of the city, If we could perhaps start there,” Terlesky added. “As for totally closing down the sites — I don’t think so — but I think there should be some more focus on getting people off the drugs.”
On Thursday, Kenney announced over $80 million in funding for 4,000 addiction treatment spaces in Alberta.
“For a government that’s looking at a real budget crunch in this province to promise to roll out 4,000 addiction beds — I think that’s a good start,” Terlesky said.
Greg Tufford, who manages a building on 10 Avenue between 1 Street and 2 Street SW, calls having a consumption site located in downtown Calgary a “nightmare.”
“I could literally run from the front of my building to the back every two minutes and chase someone off,” Tufford said. “They urinate on doorways while businesses are open for business — they don’t care.”
“It’s frustrating and it’s endless. The fact that I have my own dollar store bucket and tongs to pick up needles on a daily basis doesn’t make it okay.”
He said at the very least, he’d like to see Calgary’s downtown safe consumption site moved.
Meanwhile, Clarkson suggested increasing the number of consumption sites is the answer.
“If we had more supervised consumption sites — ideally not all centralized in one particular location but perhaps smaller sites distributed throughout the city so that impact isn’t centralized in one local area — that we might have more success.”
Clarkson said at the Calgary Drop-In Centre, they’re having to address an overdose almost on average of every second day, which detracts from their goal of getting people independent again.
“We are experts at getting people to housing and getting people back on the road to independence, we are not there for overdose reversal,” she said.
“Detox treatment and harm reduction are all a part of a continuum that is needed in addition to mental health supports and more affordable housing — that’s the solution to the issue.”
A second public engagement will be held at the Boyce Theatre in the BMO Centre on Thursday from 5 p.m.–9 p.m.
Jessica Holtsbaum, who attended Wednesday’s open house, said she hopes both sides have value to add to the discussion, and hopes the dialogue remains respectful and based on “truth and facts.”
“We’re all humans, and so are all of these people that are using the safe consumption services. Every substance user we have in Calgary is loved.”