Barton Street community cleanup highlights need for 2nd safe consumption site in Hamilton

A group of volunteers gathered on Thursday morning for a community clean-up of Barton Street, organized by SWAP Hamilton and the AIDS Network. Lisa Polewski / 900 CHML

Advocates of a safe consumption and treatment services (CTS) site on Barton Street East have held a ‘community cleanup’ event to show why a safe place for people to use drugs is needed.

Volunteers with SWAP (Sex Workers’ Action Program) Hamilton and the AIDS Network took to the streets on Thursday morning with gloves and buckets to pick up trash, used needles, and other hazards.

Jelena Vermilion, executive director of SWAP Hamilton, said she wanted to organize the initiative to respond to those who oppose the idea of a CTS site on Barton and let them know that there are better ways to improve the neighbourhood for all residents — including those who use drugs.

“It’s not just about complaining about the syringes or the refuse in the neighbourhood, but actually doing something about it.”

She said the likelihood of discarded needles and other hazards being on the streets would be reduced if people who are using drugs had a place to dispose of them properly and be taken care of in the event of an overdose.

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“We have to create a community where everybody, including those who struggle and those who aren’t … comfortable to watch, they belong in our community too.”

Hamilton’s first CTS site was approved in March 2019 and is run by Hamilton Urban Core Community Health Centre within the downtown core, although it is expected to have a permanent home on Cannon Street in September 2023.

Last fall, councillors approved the city’s second permanent CTS site at 746 Barton St. East.

The AIDS Network is applying to the Ministry of Health to be able to run the site, which would also offer “a range of holistic health and wellness services”.

There have been vocal opponents of the site’s location, including the Hamilton-Wentworth Catholic District School Board, which has cited its close proximity to St. Ann’s Catholic Elementary School.

The topic was also front and centre at the Ward 3 candidates’ debate on Cable 14, where business owner Walter Furlan said he wasn’t opposed to the concept of a CTS site — just this particular location, which is right across the street from his business.

“You have multiple daycares, multiple primary schools, you have a special needs facility just basically right beside where this is supposed to go.”

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“Everybody in this city would love it to be outside of their ward,” said Furlan, later on in the debate. “Let’s spread it equally, take the pressure off of our ward.”

Ward 3 councillor Nrinder Nann pointed out that Hamilton’s opioid epidemic is getting worse, with paramedics responding to 87 opioid-related overdoses this August, compared to an average of 76 a month in 2021 and 47 a month in 2020.

“As a board, we’ve made the decision to support increasing the amount of consumption treatment services across the city,” she said.

“Hamiltonians deserve life-saving health supports and services, and it’s unfortunate that it’s become a debate about location and pitting one vulnerable group against another.”

Candidate Laura Farr said residents were concerned about the fact that the Urban Core CTS site will be moving to Cannon Street in Ward 3 in 2023 due to a perceived lack of communication on the city’s part.

She suggested that there should be more public engagement so residents understand what CTS sites actually do and acknowledged that there is no perfect location that will make everyone happy.

“They do need to be located somewhere and we can’t argue about every single spot because there won’t be a Goldilocks spot to put any one of these and we need them. So ultimately, yes, there are two proposed [sites] for Ward 3 but we can’t just say we don’t want it in our backyard.”
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Fellow candidate Stan Kruchka said he supports CTS sites but thinks more needs to be done to prevent them from being necessary at all through rehabilitation programs and other addiction supports.

“We need to start looking after these people. They are residents of Hamilton, they are our neighbours, and they need our help.”

Vermilion said she knows not everyone is going to be supportive of a CTS site in their neighbourhood but said simply objecting to its existence isn’t going to make the issue go away.

“Ultimately, reducing harm isn’t just about stopping using drugs. It’s about using drugs in a more dignified and safe way. So using clean implements, using new implements that aren’t cross-contaminated, and using in a place where if you do overdose, you have someone who can respond to that in a medically appropriate way.”

About two dozen people took part in the Thursday morning cleanup and Vermilion said she hopes there will be more in the future.

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