About 60 residents gathered in the basement of Sacred Heart Church on March 6 to hear from members of Access to Medically Supervised Injection Services Edmonton (AMSISE) about their proposal to open four safe injection sites in the city’s core.

The meeting, organized by the McCauley Community League executive committee, was intended to address residents’ concerns about possible impacts the sites may have on their neighbourhoods.

“Community support is not a requirement of this process,” explained league president Phil O’Hara. He said the executive committee was looking for a way to gauge what message to send to the city and other levels of government. He explained they held the meeting because the proponents were not going to.

AMSISE intends to seek approval from the federal government to operate three public sites: the Boyle McCauley Health Centre, George Spady Centre, and Boyle Street Co-op. A fourth site at the Royal Alexandra Hospital would be accessible only to patients and their visitors. The sites were chosen because they already offer clean needle exchange programs as well as services for the homeless. The proposal would see a nurse and social worker present at all times.

“Supervised injection sites are just one piece of a strategy of harm reduction,” Dr. Elaine Hyshka told those present. “We believe that by connecting drug users with health care professionals and allowing them to form relationships, we can facilitate positive behavioural change.” She described the sites as an “off-ramp” or a “connector” to positive health choices.

Those present did not appear overwhelmingly opposed to the principle behind the proposal. But while some were perturbed all three public clinics will be located in their community when IV drug use is also a problem in other areas of the city, others were less so.

“I don’t have a concern,” said Mary Frances, a registered nurse and McCauley resident. “We already have the clean needle exchange sites here. Maybe this will make it better for us by keeping the used syringes off the streets.”

Jane Molstad, the city’s McCauley revitalization coordinator, said the syringe pick-up project gathered 2,400 used needles in the area last year—a dramatic increase from the 1,500 it averaged in six years of operation.

Maurice Fritze currently lives in Terwillegar. He and his wife Angela have purchased a lot in McCauley on which he intends to build and relocate. He said he’s worried the proposal flies in the face of revitalization efforts.

“We bought into the revitalization of McCauley,” he said. “I don’t oppose serving these communities. But there are drug users all across this city. Why isn’t there a city-wide sharing of responsibility?”

The federal process requires the city and the police to sign off on supporting safe injection sites, but requires no similar approval from the communities in which they are placed.

The provincial government gave AMSISE $230,000 last fall to assist the group in preparing its application and city council approved the plan in principle, pending the conclusion of community consultations.

Shelley Williams, executive director of HIV Edmonton and chair of AMSISE, said the group will continue gathering community input and must complete more steps before submitting an application to the federal government later this year.

Feature image: Shelley Williams, executive director of HIV Edmonton and chair of AMSISE, addresses the crowd. | Mimi Williams