Advocates raise concern over closure of Edmonton supervised consumption site: ‘It’s puzzling’

Click to play video: 'Alberta Government discontinues Boyle Street Community Services Supervised Consumption Site'
Alberta Government discontinues Boyle Street Community Services Supervised Consumption Site
WATCH ABOVE: The shutdown of an downtown Edmonton supervised consumption site is raising concern among advocates and medical experts. With a rise in opioid deaths they say now is the time to expand services not reduce them. Chris Chacon reports – Apr 28, 2021

The supervised consumption site at Boyle Street Community Services in downtown Edmonton is being permanently shut down.

In October 2020, Boyle Street shifted its supervised consumption services to the Edmonton Convention Centre, where a temporary shelter space has been in operation. With the Tipinawâw shelter at the convention centre set to close on April 30, the province has made the decision not to reopen the services at Boyle Street.

“That is a concern. Whenever you’re reducing that capacity, particularly in the middle of an overdose crisis that we’re facing, of course that’s something that we worry about,” said Jordan Reiniger, executive director of Boyle Street Community Services.

Prior to the fall of 2020, supervised consumption services were offered at three sites in central Edmonton.

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Boyle Street operated services from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., the George Spady Centre operated overnight from 8 p.m. to 8 a.m., and Boyle McCauley Health Centre operated daytime support services.

When Boyle Street shifted services to the convention centre in October, the George Spady Centre began operating 24 hours a day, which will continue with the closure of the Tipinawâw shelter.

While service capacity at the George Spady Centre has been increased, overall capacity will be reduced.

“Despite those attempts to increase capacity, they won’t be immediate and they will not match the existing capacity,” said Dr. Ginetta Salvalaggio, a family physician and associate professor at the University of Alberta. “Effectively we’re going from 15 booths down to nine booths.

“We ought to be doubling based on the rise in overdose cases over the past year.”

In a statement, the Alberta government said there has been no reduction in funding for supervised consumption services in the Edmonton zone.

Click to play video: 'Families write honest obituaries to speak truth about drug overdoses'
Families write honest obituaries to speak truth about drug overdoses

Reiniger said Boyle Street will work with the community to ensure they know where they can go to receive support.

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“Our concern generally is the overdose crisis is getting worse,” he explained. “This overdose crisis is raging right now and we need to have the responses to ensure we can address it effectively.

“The thing with supervised consumption sites is you want to make sure you have booths available. People, if they’re coming to use the site, they’re usually not able to wait around for too long.”

In 2020, 1,144 people died of opioid overdoses in Alberta. That’s compared to 623 in 2019, 805 in 2018, 705 in 2017 and 553 in 2016.

In the first two months of 2021, 228 people died of opioid overdoses in the province.

In Edmonton specifically, 398 people died of opioid overdoses last year. In the first two months of this year, there were 72 opioid-related deaths in the city.

Learning the Boyle Street services would no longer be offered is concerning for Angela Welz. She lost her daughter in 2016 to a fentanyl overdose.

“More lives will be lost from this decision,” said Welz, who is also the Alberta regional director of Moms Stop the Harm.

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“She was 18 years old, a young female. I don’t know if she would have used the centre at Boyle Street but it would have been option for her to be able to go somewhere, use her drugs in a safe manner where someone was there to help her to make sure that she stayed alive.”

Hakique Virani is an associate professor at the University of Alberta who specializes in public health and addiction medicine.

He said right now is not the time to be shutting down services.

“It’s puzzling,” Virani said. “We’re seeing the overdose epidemic scale in the shadows of COVID in a way that’s horrific.

“This is not a time to scale back life-saving interventions. It’s a time to broaden them.”

The Alberta government said the previous government made the decision to place three consumption sites in close proximity of each other.

Justin Marshall, press secretary to the Associate Minister of Mental Health and Addictions, said the province is in talks with Boyle Street about potentially operating overdose prevention services in an under-serviced area of Edmonton.

With files from Chris Chacon, Global News.

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