The battle to save the lives of opioid addicts rages on in Sault Ste. Marie, with Family Matters hosting a public forum and informational conference with experts in the field to help develop tangible results for our community.
This week’s three part conference consisted of a public forum on Friday night, a conference with plenaries and breakout sessions on Saturday, and will finish with a think tank with community leaders on Monday.
Additionally, event organizers met with Mayor Provenzano on Thursday to discuss the issues.
This event came together through the passion of three strong women who have seen firsthand the devastating result of drugs like fentanyl in our city.
Donna May, founder of MUMSDU (Moms United and Mandated to saving the lives of Drug users), lost her daughter, Jacey, from opioid addiction.
Connie Raynor-Elliot, more affectionately known as mama bear to her cubs, has worked ground zero with substance users to help prevent opioid-related death.
Lisa Damignani, owner and funeral director at O’Sullivan Funeral Home, recognized the correlation in business and deaths to substance use in the community, and felt compelled to help raise awareness.
The weekend provided a forum to openly discuss why people use drugs to begin with, what strategies can be developed to keep drug users alive long enough to help them make a different choice, and find out from experts who have first-hand experience dealing with the opioid related overdose crisis what has worked in other cities.
Much of the discussion surrounded harm reduction, focusing primarily on these strategies as means of keeping addicts alive.
Rob Boyd, Oasis Program Director at Sandy Hill Community Health Centre (providing programs and services to those who use street drugs or need mental health assistance) in Ottawa, defined this best,
“When we look at harm reduction, measures of success need to be considered differently than completely abstaining from the drug. Maybe it is using less, using in a safe space, maintaining a job, only using on the weekends, not using alone.
If your goal is to get on methadone or Suboxone, we want to help you get there. If your goal is to quit completely, we will help you get there, too. But it’s important to remember that what works for someone may not work for someone else, and we need to keep an open mind and focus on how far people have come versus where they are going.
If someone was using everyday and had no life outside of the drug, and we can help them get down to using once a week or using methadone, we are helping them to live with a better quality of life than they had before.”
And open-mindedness was a key component for attendees, who came from all walks of life.
Some had experience in coping with addictions issues, while others had tragically lost loved ones to drugs.
Some were professionals and front line workers looking to share their knowledge and drink in all the information they could in order to keep doing their job to the best of their ability.
Some were just plain caring and concerned citizens.
The Algoma Leadership Table and the Sault Ste. Marie Police both sent representatives, both being key players in dealing with the Sault’s opioid crisis.
MPP Ross Romano attended part of the conference on Saturday to show his support.
He told SaultOnline, “I am here as a concerned citizen, but there was some positive information that came forward that I think would be useful to share with my colleagues so that we can look at what we would do moving forward if we are fortunate enough to form government on June 7th, and if we are not, if I have a role as an opposition member, I will be sure to advance a number of these issues.”
Romano stated, “This is a priority issue. It is very concerning and it has been for a long time.”
A key point point of discussion circled around Overdose Prevention Sites (OPS), Supervised Consumption Sites (SCS), and Supervised Injection Sites (SIS).
SCS are meant to be a permanent site where people can use safely and respectfully, but between needing to conduct community consultations, agree to a location, and consulting with partners, the process to get one is extremely tedious, complex, and can take up to several years.
In the middle of a serious opioid epidemic, several years could mean thousands more lives lost.
SIS are similar but only allows injection as the form of consumption.
OPS are designed to be temporary in order to address an immediate need, and for that reason, they don’t require consultation, support services, and can be set up in a matter of weeks.
It is an interim solution to keep people who use dangerous drugs alive at a time when so many lives are being lost.
Boyd explained the significance of SCS, “It gives us the opportunity to see what we haven’t seen before, understanding the lived experiences of drug use better.
Having the ability to be present as people are consuming drugs in a space that is safe and respectful, and seeing what they experience is liberating for a lot of these individuals. It is transformative, because for some of these people, it is the very first time that they are just being accepted for who they are.”
He continued, “It also gives us the chance to show them the other options, whether they choose the option or not, at least they know that it is there. Ultimately, you can’t make people do something they don’t want to do.
People will resist and push back if you try to make them quit or make them change. It has to be their own decision, but at least they know that when they are ready, they will know where they can go and that there are options.”
Boyd believes the goal should be to keep drug users alive.
Adam Chalcraft, Harm Reduction Coordinator at Peel HIV/AIDS Network (working towards reducing adverse health, social, and economic consequences of behaviours such as substance abuse, unprotected sex, etc. from a non-judgmental point of view), also expressed the value of these sites.
He said, “These sites allow professionals to interact with the users on their terms, not the other way around. It is really rare because in most formal settings, the user has to conform to a certain model of care, but this gives us the chance to help in a respectful and dignified manner for the individual.”
Chalcraft and his colleagues are in the process of trying to open a site in the Moss Park area of Toronto to respond to the issues there.
But there are a lot of puzzle pieces that need to come together in order for something like that to come together in any community, but especially in one where opioid use, addiction, and its impacts are so heavily stigmatized.
Chalcraft explained, “It needs to be in an area where people will access the services, with a land lord that is open-minded enough to get on board, all the while still respecting the other people in the area. It may not be the right thing for every community, and it really has to be the right location if it is going to be a permanent site.”
Boyd attributes much of the success of the Oasis Clinic in Ottawa to creating an open dialogue with the community.
He told the conference, “We did community consultations and actually showed the community what we do, what we don’t do, what the space looks like, and took questions. We asked what people liked, what they didn’t like, what their concerns are. We tried to clarify a lot of the misconceptions that exist around these issues.”
He went on to say, “While some people walk away still opposed to the site, at least they know what they are opposing. At least we know that we educated them on the site. But most people walked away saying, ‘you know, it’s really not that bad, it’s really not that big a deal.'”
OPS, SCS, and SIS can take a number of different forms, and a huge challenge moving forward in our community will most definitely be determining what will work best for the Sault.
For example, what physical form will it take? There are mobile sites, rooms in hospitals, full buildings, tents, and so many other options to consider.
Who will run it? May advised strongly against mothers who have lost children running these types of spaces based on her lived experience in working in this setting, which she describes as ‘too triggering and too personal.’
Moreover, she raised a very critical point that often gets forgotten in these types of discussions; What about the atypical addict? The people who we’d never expect?What about the individuals who, because of their position in society, their background, their family ties or prominent name, could never walk into a SIS?
In other words, as May stated to the audience, “What can we do in our community and how can we do it right?”
These are questions that, hopefully, the think tank will be able to respond to.
“The Think Tank will consist of the Algoma Leadership, the Sault Police, and the organizations who put on the forum to discuss what is possible, what isn’t, how we will implement it, what our timeline is, and where the funding dollars will come from. It will determine our next steps,” explained May.
May concluded the forum by stating, “This is a community looking for help, and I’ve seen more participation here in the Sault than I have at any other conference I have been to in the last five years.”
This alone, is evidence that our community cares.
Steel town down – but not out. Together, we as a community can achieve tangible results.
Together, by rallying our resources and communicating – individual to individual, organization to organization, agency to agency, we can implement positive change in our community.
May advised SaultOnline that the report compiling results from the conference will be completed and made public within the coming two to three weeks.
Stay tuned, as we will be sharing these results.
For more information on Family Matters or to get in touch with event organizers, click here.