A central Regina friendship centre has applied to Saskatchewan’s Ministry of Health, looking to proceed with an in-house safe consumption site in the new year.
The Nēwo Yōtina Friendship Centre, which submitted its documents Friday morning, is seeking an exemption from the province to operate it as an Urgent Public Health Need Site in January 2021.
Citing the record-high number of overdoses in the city this year, the centre’s executive director, Michael Parker, said it’s not a long-term solution. It’s something that’s needed now, he said, equating it to “stemming the bleeding.”
The most recent available data from the Saskatchewan Coroners Service confirms 122 overdose deaths in the province so far this year. Of them, 58 — almost half — have been in Regina, mostly involving drugs laced with some form of fentanyl.
The Regina Police Service’s records indicate far more. Between Jan. 1, 2020 and Dec. 16, 2020, there have been 1,060 overdoses in the city and 106 have been apparently fatal.
“There’s hope for folks who are in this kind of situation with the right treatment and services,” Parker said. “But you can’t get treatment if you’re dead.”
The friendship centre is proposing to operate the safe consumption site in unused space in its building at 1635 11th Ave. There is a separate back entrance, Parker said, clarifying it would be separated from the area used for other programming.
With $5,000 to $10,000 in renovations, which the friendship centre has allocated for in its budget, Parker said it would be able to accommodate one staff member and two clients at once. The immediate capital and operating costs would come out of the organization’s own budget.
“At this stage, we’re just asking for authorization,” Parker said. “That’s not a big ask.”
Permission to proceed with an Urgent Public Health Need Site typically comes from the federal government, but given the gravity of the opioid crisis during the coronavirus pandemic, Health Canada gave the provinces the power to approve them as well until September 30, 2021.
In an email to Global News, Saskatchewan’s Ministry of Health said it was aware of the Nēwo Yōtina Friendship Centre’s interest in operating an overdose prevention site.
“We are committed to working with the Saskatchewan Health Authority, community-based organizations, police services and municipal partners to find solutions to address this complex issue,” the email said.
The friendship centre’s application to the province included letters of support. One, from Regina Mayor Sandra Masters, noted “it is imperative we act quickly” and encouraged the Ministry of health to consider the request.
Another, from Regina police Chief Evan Bray echoes those sentiments.
“Averaging over three overdoses per day this year has given us a clear view of the challenges drugs are posing in our community,” Bray wrote. “It has also given us the resolve to do something about it.”
As one of its last acts, Regina’s former city council voted in late October in favour of a city-wide harm reduction strategy. It was a result of a motion brought forward by Couns. Lori Bresciani, Bob Hawkins, Jason Mancinelli and Andrew Stevens.
“My sense of it is we don’t have adequate spaces and supports in the community to address the growing needs of people who are addicted or who are users of different substances,” said Stevens, who has been out with the needle pick-up group Queen City Patrol.
“I think another question here is, ‘Why is it community-based organizations that are having to do this? They run on very lean budgets. They don’t always get adequate funding from the provincial and federal governments — certainly not always sufficient funds from the city.
“We are having organizations that are very lean having to address this and I think it should probably cause us to stop and think.”