Christine Zinni says she has lost count of the number of friends, colleagues and loved ones who have died of opioid overdoses over the past three years.
“There are so many I don’t know how to deal with it anymore,” said Zinni, 47, a harm reduction worker. A low estimate, she told the Star, is 30 people in or connected to her immediate circle. “If I sat down and started writing a list I would probably break down.”
With overdose deaths on the rise, Zinni and fellow members of the harm reduction community are struggling to understand why Ontario’s health ministry pulled funding from sites where people could use drugs under supervision in late March — including two in Toronto. A third site run by Toronto Public Health was left in limbo.
“People are going to die. They are playing politics with peoples lives,” Zinni said. “You can’t treat a dead addict.”
Zinni is not alone in her thinking. A majority of Torontonians disagree with the funding being withdrawn for services, a new poll shows. Two thirds also said they thought the sites are an effective way to save lives.
Two thirds of Torontonians, 65 per cent, said they disapproved of the provincial decision, according to a poll by Forum Research Inc., conducted for the Star. A total of 1,110 people, from the former city of Toronto, East York, North York, Etobicoke, York and Scarborough responded through an interactive phone survey.
About 25 per cent said they approved taking away funding and 9 per cent said they didn’t know. In the former city of Toronto — where services are concentrated — 76 per cent disapproved, 16 per cent were in favour and 8 per cent said they didn’t know.
On Thursday, the province announced $1 billion in funding for Toronto Public Health would be cut over 10 years. It will impact overdose prevention as well as prenatal support, immunization monitoring, infectious disease control, food safety and more, a TPH spokesperson said Friday in a release.
Speaking on the overdose crisis, Councillor Joe Cressy, chair of the city’s board of health, earlier this week said, “In Toronto we are losing one person every day. Everybody is now affected. Every household. Every community.
“Torontonians are awake to the devastating impact of the overdose crisis. If only the province was too.”
This year, Toronto paramedics have already responded to more than 1,170 suspected opioid overdose calls and 53 were reported as fatal, according to the city’s website.
The highest approval for the province came from Scarborough, where 34 per cent of 204 people were in favour of pulling funding, 55 per cent disapproved and 11 per cent didn’t know.
Ontario had pulled the funding for overdose prevention sites at St. Stephen’s Community House in Kensington Market and The Street Health site at Dundas and Sherbourne Sts., saying they didn’t meet new service requirements set by the province. Operators told the Star they were told to close their doors and expect to turn clients away. Federal exemptions have meant the doors stayed open but the agencies needed to come up with their own money.
A supervised injection site, The Works, operated by Toronto Public Health, is operating pending further review by the province. The Ontario government has approved funding for six sites in Toronto, among a total of 15 across Ontario, a spokesperson for the provincial health ministry confirmed.
Overdose prevention sites were intended to be a temporary, a nimble response to a mounting crisis. Supervised injection sites have tighter rules around staffing and supervision and are meant to be permanent.
Among the group polled 65 per cent agreed that the sites were an effective way to reduce deaths and 64 per cent said they approved of having the sites in the city. In old Toronto 77 per cent said the sites were effective and 76 per cent approved of safe injection site in the city.
And 46 per cent said they thought people also used the sites to access addiction services.
Health Minister Christine Elliott, in a release at the time, said their “government takes the opioids crisis very seriously,” and the new service model would “continue to save lives.”
In response, Dr. Eileen de Villa, Toronto’s medical officer of health, predicted lethal consequences. “I expect you will see deaths,” during a press conference at city hall. Mayor John Tory described the move as “extremely disturbing.”
The Works has already supervised more than 1,700 visits this month, and 18 resulted in an overdose, according to the city’s website. Staff have supervised almost 42,650 visits since August 2017, and of those 782 involved an overdose and 301 people required Naloxone.
On Thursday, Toronto’s Overdose Prevention Society (TOPS) donated $20,000 each to St. Stephens and Street Health. TOPS co-ordinator Gillian Kolla said generous donations made to their group means they can support fellow agencies — but shouldn’t have to.
“It is not the job of our citizens to be funding for an essential health service,” she said. “The government is absolutely shirking its responsibility.”
City council voted on Tuesday to ask the provincial government to restore their funding. That same day Zinni and fellow advocates converged on Queen’s Park as part of a national day of action. They spread the photos and names of their dead across the lawn, then walked down University Ave. and staged a “die-in” in front of the offices of Ontario’s chief medical officer of health.
Advocates have been calling on the provincial and federal governments to declare a state of emergency and provide additional funding and a clean drug supply.
The biggest threat to drug users is the synthetic opioid fentanyl. The prescription form of the drug is used during surgery and to manage extreme pain. What has contaminated the street supply are a range of analogues, cooked up in local labs and shipped across the border. Users can’t know the strength and too high a dose can stop breathing. A drug called Naloxone can reverse an overdose and is kept at the ready at all sites.
While general acceptance of the sites was high, about half of the group, when asked to speculate, said they believed their neighbours would disapprove of a site being opened less than a kilometre from their homes. About 30 per cent didn’t know and about 20 said they thought their neighbours would approve. In the former city of Toronto, 39 per cent thought neighbours would object to a site being that close. The highest expected disapproval rate, at 65 per cent, was in Etobicoke, the results showed.
The same group was also asked to rank Tory’s performance as mayor and of those surveyed 57 per cent said they approve of the job he is doing at city hall, while roughly a quarter disapprove.
With files from Jennifer Pagliaro
Emily Mathieu is a Toronto-based reporter covering affordable and precarious housing. Follow her on Twitter: @emathieustar