‘People are losing their lives on our streets’: Overdose calls climb in Durham

Click to play video: 'Opioid overdose calls rise in Durham' Opioid overdose calls rise in Durham
WATCH: Over the past week, there have been at least 30 suspected overdoses throughout the region. – Sep 9, 2020

Durham front-line staff say they have been dealing with an alarming number of calls for opioid overdoses.

According to the region’s paramedic services, there have been 30 suspected overdose calls since Aug. 30. This is nearly double compared to 16 calls the week prior.

Starting Sept. 5, Durham police said they responded to 11 calls within the span of 36 hours. One man was pronounced dead at the scene near Simcoe and Bruce streets in Oshawa after using heroin.

Oshawa Mayor Dan Carter says he’s devastated by the news, and he’s pleading for support from all levels of government.

“We have to do everything we can to be able to save people’s lives,” Carter said.

“It saddens me any time that anyone loses their life on our streets, and because people are losing their lives on our streets, we absolutely need to do things differently.”

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Read more: Canada needs new approach to tackle worsening opioid crisis, study says

Carter has put forward a number of resolutions before the Large Urban Mayors Caucus of Ontario (LUMCO) and Association of Municipalities (AMO).

Among his proposals: that the crisis be recognized and declared by all levels of government as a national health epidemic, that the province fund 100 per cent of naloxone kits for all municipal first responders and that the Ministry of Education add a health-promoting youth-resiliency program to the school curriculum.

The mayor also told Global News the city’s outreach teams have gone through more than 300,000 harm reduction kits in the span of nine months.

Meanwhile, a memorial for those who have lost their lives due to opioids has been set up on John Street in Oshawa.

Jessica Miller says she has lost many friends, whose names are honoured at the site. After suffering several traumatic, incidents including losing her mother to a morphine overdose during her childhood, having her own children taken away from her and watching her partner go to jail, Miller now suffers from an opioid addiction herself.

“I used to hate all drugs, and then I had my kids taken from me,” she said.

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“That’s how me and my husband ended up here, just trying to mask the pain. My fiancé just got out of jail, and before we lost our kids that’s something he never would have ended up in.”

Preston Trail is another homeless individual who attended the John Street memorial. He showed Global News one of the rocks at the site, which had his name on it. Trail had been deemed missing since July 1.

Read more: Oshawa mayor witnesses overdose at city hall, pushes for action on opioid crisis

“As sad as it is to say, my name is on here,” Trail said.

“I (probably) will be one of these people unfortunately.”

Shawn Folks was a gym owner who lost his business during the pandemic. He says he witnessed first-hand the devastating implications of the opioid crisis.

“A lot of the girls, how do you think they pay for their drugs? All you have to do is stand in front of my gym and you’ll see solicitation after solicitation,” Folks said.

“Trap houses exist all over the town.”

Staff at Cornerstone, a homeless shelter in south Oshawa, say they have witnessed the devastation of the opioid crisis for over a decade. Executive director Rob Brglez says while there are many reasons for the spike in overdoses, one possibility could be due to extra money individuals are receiving from the Canadian Emergency Response Benefit (CERB).

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“It’s not a great arrangement for people experiencing addictions to have access to more money,” Brglez said.

Brglez adds Cornerstone has seen an increase in first-time shelter users during the pandemic. He says the vast majority of homeless people also use drugs.

“We knew (homelessness) was there 10 years ago. But now everyone is seeing it.”

Read more: Halifax-area firm ready to roll out drug-dispensing machines to fight opioid crisis

When it comes to possible solutions to tackle the complex and systemic issues of the opioid crisis and homelessness issues impacting Durham, he says early intervention and affordable long-term mental health and addiction supports are needed.

Carter says the region recently approved $15 million in funding to build 70 micro-homes with support services across Durham.

“This isn’t about just putting people into a house,” Carter said.

“This is taking people from being unsheltered into shelter, with supported services around them so that they are absolutely able to succeed.”

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