Jason Bourner has reversed three overdoses during his time as a front-line worker at St. Stephen’s Community House in Kensington Market.
“Those are three lives,” he says.
Three people he managed to “bring back” using oxygen or the overdose-reversing drug naloxone who might not be alive without the supervised consumption site.
St. Stephen’s is one of three such Toronto sites left in limbo after the province on Friday decided not to approve them. The federal government soon granted it emergency temporary approval to stay open, but only if staff can find their own funding — they say they have managed to cobble together enough for a month from private donors.
They’re now desperately trying to figure out how to get the funding they need — about $350,000 to $400,000 — to stay open for the year, according to Lorie Steer, director of urban health and homelessness services.
And they’re afraid of what will happen if they can’t.
“My big worry is that somebody’s going to leave here in a body bag,” said Bourner, who injected drugs in the past and now uses his own experience to connect with those who still do.
St. Stephen’s offers a range of other services, including a drop-in centre, and people will continue to use drugs there, or nearby, regardless of whether there’s an overdose prevention site, he said.
“They’ll be in the bathrooms. They’ll be in the shower. They’ll be in the alleyways.”
A spokesperson for Minister of Health Christine Elliott’s office said the only applications that were not accepted — including St. Stephen’s — were near an approved consumption site.
(The nearest approved consumption site to St. Stephen’s is about a 20-minute walk south, at the Parkdale Queen West Community Health Centre location near Bathurst St. and Queen St. W.)
The Street Health overdose prevention site, at Dundas and Sherbourne Sts., was also not approved and has received a similar one-month reprieve from the federal government.
“Based on extensive consultation with experts, we are confident the model we have brought forward is the right approach to connect people struggling with addiction with the care they need and deserve. Applications from interested organizations will continue to be accepted on an ongoing basis,” wrote Minister Elliott’s press secretary Hayley Chazan in an email.
Minister Elliott and Mayor John Tory had a meeting on Sunday, where they had a “productive discussion” about the situation as well as the decision to place the Toronto Public Health site on hold pending further review, she added.
Tory and councillor Councillor Joe Cressy, Chair of the Board of Health, have both vocally condemned shutting the sites.
Staff at St. Stephen’s see about 130 to 150 clients a month and have stopped about 20 overdoses in the year since it’s been open, Steer said. About seven people work at the overdose prevention site, all of whom face losing their jobs if it closes.
The site itself is a small room with a couple of tables and chairs, mirrors and desk lights. Outside there’s a lounge with a couple of chairs where staff watch people after they use drugs. A mural covers one wall where clients and staff have left messages scrawled in colourful marker.
“This is much nicer than trying to inject behind a dumpster in the dark,” reads one. “The nicest and safest place I’ve ever used drugs.”
A rose and a button that reads “keep calm and naloxone on” lies on top of a photo of a smiling young woman. She’s Angela, Bourner said — his former co-worker and best female friend. She died of an overdose in September, in her apartment.
He said he had to take some time off after her death, but it “has reaffirmed my commitment to do this work because I know how important it is,” he said. She would be “devastated” at the thought that the site might have to close, he said.
Angela, Bourner, and John Henwood, the lead overdose prevention worker, used to call themselves the “dream team,” Henwood said.
“God bless Angie,” he said. “Even with all the knowledge she had, nobody was there to help her and save her.”
Henwood wears a naloxone nasal spray around his neck on a lanyard, but stresses that reversing and preventing overdoes is only one part of what he does.
He’s been HIV positive for 22 years. He wishes he had access to clean needles when he was using.
“If all this stuff had of been in place when I was an intravenous drug user, I would not have what I have today,” he said.
It’s also about building rapport and relationships, so staff can refer people to other services, he added. St. Stephen’s offers HIV testing, and a drop-in doctor, nurse and psychiatrist, among other services.
It was a visit to a drug consumption site that helped get 28-year-old Salem Springle into treatment and recovery about six months ago.
She was a “hardcore crystal meth user” for 10 years. She now works as an outreach peer leader and facilities support groups at St. Stephen’s.
“I only used the site once and I was, like, changed,” she said, snapping her fingers.
“I didn’t realize how much the stigma was really keeping me down.”
A place to go where you can be in a community and “be accepted for where you’re at” can help get people into treatment without forcing them, she said.
“I think everyone deserves another chance at improving their lives,” Springle said.
“The opposite of addiction is connection.”
May Warren is a breaking news reporter based in Toronto. Follow her on Twitter: @maywarren11