The doors to ARCHES Supervised Consumption Site are closed, after the province announced it would be pulling funding due to an audit earlier this year that suggested public money had been mismanaged.
Outreach worker Tim Slaney says the audit findings came as a shock to him and his colleagues.
After removing Executive Director Stacey Bourque for a misuse of funds, Slaney said those who worked at the site felt the remaining issues highlighted were blown out of proportion.
“They took us when we were vulnerable and they used it as an excuse to take services away from people who really depend on them,” Slaney said.
“I know there were allegations of missing televisions, of all-expense paid parties and so on. That simply didn’t exist. It’s a bit of a smear job. You know, I trained on that television, I went to those parties and those were in Eagles Hall with a couple of fold out tables. No one was living high on the dime here.”
Slaney adds that the community is in for a wake-up call. He says the closure will not change the drug use occurring in the city’s public spaces, but rather will end other programs which support more than just drug users.
“We’re going to be losing a lot of those wrap-around supports that the community was really calling for more of,” Slaney said. “The programs to find people who are living rough on the streets and get them into housing. We’re going to be lacking the housing workers that keep people in their homes when they are trying to transition to recovery. We’re going to be losing our hepatitis program, we’re going to be losing out HIV program, we’re going to be losing our cultural programs.”
Advocate with Lethbridge group Moms Stop The Harm Lori Hatfield said their group feels the closure is targeted.
“In any other service facility, they would not shut down the services,” Hatfield said. “The government would be putting in other management to come in and oversee the funds until the investigation was complete.”
An open letter to Premier Jason Kenney from the Canadian HIV/Aids Legal Network outlines the same concerns, and has been signed by more than 46 organizations across the country.
Janet Butler-McPhee with the Canadian HIV/Aids Legal Network says the negative perceptions of harm-reduction in some communities shouldn’t take precedence over medical care.
“We’re talking about healthcare and lifesaving healthcare. So I have to say I would put the lives of people who use drugs ahead of whatever negative experiences we’re talking about,” Butler-McPhee said.
“I would say that the most important thing here is that we need to uphold health and human rights and we need to understand that supervised consumption services are a way to do this. We know that, evidence tells us that.”
Butler-McPhee adds that the closure of the ARCHES SCS on International Overdose Awareness Day pinpoints a main concern.
“At a time when we’re seeing record numbers of overdose deaths in Canada,” Butler-McPhee said. “This is a time we need to be expanding and scaling up our supervised consumption and harm reduction services– in Alberta, but beyond Alberta.”
Hatfield said it’s a message that is falling on deaf ears in the Lethbridge community.
“That lifesaving services are no longer going to be offered in the capacity that they have been is just a travesty for us,” Hatfield said in reference to the new mobile ‘Overdose Prevention Site’ is operating outside the Lethbridge Shelter and Resource Centre.
In its first week open, the OPS had only 68 total visits from 36 patients, which is far lower than the numbers at the SCS –which had about 800 visits per day.
Two recovery communities are also set to be built in Lethbridge County and the Blood Tribe in the first half of 2021.
A police investigation into the findings of the provincial audit, including $1.6 million in unaccounted-for public money is ongoing.
Lethbridge police officials say they will be releasing their findings in conjunction with provincial government officials when the investigation concludes.