Calgary’s downtown supervised consumption site will be closing its doors, and the services it provides are being relocated to two other currently unknown locations in the city.
In a statement Thursday evening, the provincial government said the closure of the Safeworks site inside the Sheldon M. Chumir Health Centre was part of its “city-by-city approach regarding the location of supervised consumption services.”
“We will be relocating the existing supervised consumption site, which has been highly disruptive to the neighbourhood, and instead add SCS capabilities within two existing partner organizations’ facilities situated in more appropriate locations,” department of mental health and addictions spokesperson Justin Marshall said in a statement.
“While we cannot announce those locations quite yet, we can confirm that they will be situated much closer to those who need such services. It frankly made little sense for those needing such facilities to need to walk up to 30 minutes one way to the Beltline to get the services they require.”
Marshall didn’t give any detail on which partner organizations are that the government will be working with to provide services at the other sites.
“It’s absolutely tragic and devastating,” said Rebecca Haines-Saah, an associate professor in the department of Community Health Sciences at the Cumming School of Medicine.
“We have seen the worst year on record in 2020, and 2021 is looking to be equally devastating for overdose deaths in Calgary and across Alberta.
“To do this right now is absolutely the wrong thing to do, in my opinion.”
The Sheldon M. Chumir site has been the source of contention in recent years, with those living in the area — as well as police — reporting an increase in crime and disorder linked to the facility.
A January 2019 report from the Calgary Police Service showed a 286 per cent increase in drug-related calls in the 250-metre radius around the site compared to the three-year average.
“There’s been devastating impact in terms of crime and anti-social behaviour around… the Schumer site in the Beltline part of Calgary,” Premier Jason Kenney said during a Friday news conference.
“I know that the approach of the NDP was to ignore those people who raised those concerns and call them names and say that they were not compassionate, but we think that we can best address the challenge of addictions, provide necessary support and a full spectrum of services — from harm reduction to lifetime recovery — that we can do all of those things in a much more effective way without the kind of very negative implications for the local community.”
Ward 8 Coun. Evan Woolley told Global News he spoke with Alberta’s Associate Minister for Mental Health and Addictions Jason Luan’s chief of staff on the phone on Thursday night, and was “given great confidence” that the provincial government will not be closing the Sheldon M. Chumir site before the other two sites are opened up.
“I am more comfortable based on my conversation last night with the minister‘s office that they will be opening sites — that there will be overlap of the operations of those sites,” Woolley said.
“I have been in conversations about the potential impact of closure of the Chumir (site),” he said. “We know that people will be dying in our streets. We know that this problem is not going away. We know it’s a complex problem, and it’s going to take an incredible coordination of all levels of government and our communities to solve this incredibly complex crisis.”
Beltline Neighbourhoods Association president Peter Oliver told Global News the announcement leaves the community in a lurch.
“There is a lot of uncertainty as to what is going to happen,” Oliver said. “The devil is really in the details here around the timing of closing the Sheldon Chumir site as well as where any new sites might go.”
“It’s been unfortunate because there has been such a cone of silence around the government and a lack of communication with the community that really leaves a lot of uncertainty.
“We know that the opioid epidemic is deadly and that the supervised consumption sites are saving lives, so we never called for the Sheldon Chumir (site) to be closed. What we did call for was a more distributed model, and really for healthcare experts – and the community – to have a greater hand in working towards a solution.”
Advocates for the site’s services and its location have said it is effective to have the site operational in the downtown core. They have also made the case to have additional sites set up in other parts of the city.
“The thing that’s important to remember is that these (supervised consumption sites) are not just dropped into neighbourhoods; there is extensive community consultation, there is extensive data collection, there is extensive partnership building that is required to obtain the federal exception to have the site,” Haines-Saah said.
“To say that, ‘Well, we’re just going to go ahead and move this site and maybe have two other sites’ — that are smaller and have less capacity – ‘that we’re going to move around the city,’ to me doesn’t make a lot of sense.
“This site has built relationships with people,” Haines-Saah said. “I’m really worried that people are going to feel abandoned in their worst times.
“The damage is going to be immediate and I think it’s going to be devastating.
“We’ve seen three deaths outside in a park not far from where a site in Edmonton ceased operations. Why would we be doing this now?”
In August 2019, the province announced a panel that would lead a province-wide review of supervised consumption sites, after pausing funding for proposed sites in June of that year.
“Our principled approach will continue to provide services while protecting community safety,” Marshall said. “Supervised consumption services will continue to operate in Alberta.
“Our government is committed to a high-quality and easily accessible system of care for both mental health and addictions that includes a full continuum of supports, including services to reduce harm. Albertans deserve no less. People with addiction deserve no less.”
The ARCHES supervised consumption site in Lethbridge closed its doors, in light of the provincial review in August 2020.
Kenney said there were predictions that the closure was going to be “very dangerous.”
“We replaced it with a temporary site in Lethbridge and there was no measurable negative consequences,” he said.
Kenney’s reassurances come as little comfort to advocates.
“From the time the UCP came into power we’ve seen a systematic campaign of dismantling of harm-reduction sites in this province. A vendetta, almost, against the gains that have been made to scale-up our response to these preventable deaths,” Haines-Saah said.