Premier Doug Ford is defending his government’s decision to shut down several overdose-prevention sites, saying Monday that the province had to balance the concerns of residents near the sites with the needs of people who use drugs.
The province announced on Friday that while 15 sites had been approved under a new model, six previously licensed sites were not given the green light – including three in Toronto. Two of the Toronto sites will start winding down operations and a third is on hold because it’s still under review.
Critics have said the move is a major step backwards.
But Ford said that in deciding which sites to keep open, his government consulted with both health professionals and neighbourhood residents.
“If I put one beside your house, you’d be going ballistic,” Ford told reporters in Toronto. “I want to try to help these people. It’s OK, yeah, help ’em, but not in my backyard. That’s the reality of things.”
He said one Toronto neighbourhood had four sites under the old model – too many, according to him.
“There’s really no reason to have four sites within a kilometre of one neighbourhood,” Ford said, noting his government had heard from concerned area residents.
A spokeswoman for Health Minister Christine Elliott said proximity to other treatment sites was just one of the criteria used in reviewing the sites.
The province also looked at commitment to community outreach, compliance with accessibility laws and whether they offered “integrated, wrap-around health and social services,” said Hayley Chazan.
Operators of Ontario’s overdose prevention sites issued an open letter to Elliott on Monday, condemning the decision not to fund all of the previously approved sites and calling on the government to reverse its position or at least support a “three-month transition phase.”
“Without any transition plan in place, the 15 sites that were approved to continue operating do not have the immediate capacity and/or geographic proximity to the closed sites to take on the influx of clients that will no longer be able to access harm reduction services,” the letter reads.
Gillian Kolla of the Toronto Overdose Prevention Society said shutting down overdose prevention sites doesn’t prevent people from using drugs.
“It’s in nobody’s interest in the community to have people using drugs in alleyways and in parks and in fast food bathrooms,” she said. “Any time you take away a supervised injection site, you’re turning your community into an unsupervised and unsafe injection site. That is what the premier is currently advocating for.”
The latest numbers from Public Health Ontario indicate 629 people died of opioid overdoses in the province in the first six months of last year – an increase of 80 over the same period a year earlier.
There were also 6,688 opioid-related emergency department visits in the province in the first nine months of 2018 and another 1,544 hospitalizations
WATCH: An advocate and a local councillor weigh in on the impact of the new provincial funding model.