The Village Overdose Prevention Site – We Cannot Wait (joint statement with TOPS)

The Village Overdose Prevention Site – we cannot wait.

In recognition of World AIDS Day, Toronto Overdose Prevention Society (TOPS) and Queers Crash the Beat (QCTB) will operate an Overdose Prevention Site (OPS) in the heart of Toronto’s historical, queer neighbourhood – the Church-Wellesley Village. The ‘Village’ OPS will be located next to the AIDS Memorial, in Barbara Hall Park, and will be open 12:00pm-9:00pm on Saturday December 1st.

We are in the midst of an unprecedented social and public health crisis. 1,265 people died from opioid overdose in Ontario in 2017. In 1995, at the height of the AIDS epidemic – 691 people died from AIDS in Ontario.

AIDS activism and harm reduction efforts have long been intertwined. However, as the number of deaths from overdose continue to grow, many AIDS Service Organizations in Toronto are operating as ‘business as usual’. Several have no harm reduction services.”
– Mikiki, Village resident, who has worked in harm reduction and the HIV/AIDS response

The Village is one of the busiest areas of the city and is experiencing rapid gentrification. Despite the history of AIDS organizing on these same streets, politicians, neighbourhood groups, and community agencies – especially AIDS Service Organizations (ASOs) – are not adequately responding to the overdose crisis, allowing people to die from preventable deaths. Stigma and discrimination fueled inaction during the AIDS crisis. Stigma and discrimination is fuelling the lack of response to the overdose crisis today.

I live at Yonge and Wellesley and see the overdose crisis alongside the housing crisis. Gentrification is leading to more folks on the streets, people are injecting in the stairwells of my building, and I often check on folks passed out in laneways. We could create safe spaces for people to use, to help dispose of needles, and to get people connected to social and health services.”
– Nick Boyce, Village resident for 20 years

In one year (August 2017-2018), the Church-Yonge Corridor, which includes the Village, had the highest number of overdose calls to Toronto Paramedic Services (358), higher than any neighbourhood – including Moss Park – where community organizations are working together to create and operate OPS, ensuring the availability of harm reduction supplies, and providing spaces where people can get linked linking people to other valuable services. Even more alarming, only 11% of overdose calls in the Village received naloxone administration prior to Paramedic arrival – the lowest rate of bystander response in the city.

Low rates of naloxone use, prior to EMS arrival, point to a need for overdose response services in the Village, where no community agencies are distributing naloxone, or providing public overdose response training. Also, there are few harm reduction equipment distribution programs in the Village, despite the evidence these programs reduce HIV transmission. We need local AIDS service and community organizations to step up and improve their services.”
– Zoë Dodd, TOPS

Further, as the city launches its Toronto to Zero campaign – to reduce new HIV diagnoses to zero – and ASOs celebrate real achievements – such as U=U (Undetectable = Untransmittable) – HIV infections continue rise in some communities of people who use drugs. Trans people, Indigenous peoples, people who are racialized, and women who use drugs, are most impacted by the intersections of the overdose crisis and the HIV epidemic, but are excluded from these campaigns. People who use drugs are being left behind, ignored and alienated.

We call on community organizations, especially ASOs, to develop meaningful partnerships with people who use drugs, move past unnecessary ‘feasibility studies’, implement broad, diverse harm reduction programs and, most urgently, open an Overdose Prevention Site in the Village.

We call on the Provincial Government to immediately remove the arbitrary cap of 21 sites for ‘Consumption and Treatment Services’. We are in an escalating public health crisis. An OPS in the Village and the expansion of other overdose prevention efforts and harm reduction services will save lives.

We call on the City of Toronto to immediately prioritize the implementation of health and social services for people who use drugs in the Village. Instead of increasing police presence, we need to ensure that people who use drugs have access to housing, healthcare, income supports, food security and, most importantly, can live.

As an LGBTQ community and neighbourhood, we need to wake up to this overdose crisis, stand with the harm reduction community, and offer community-specific services, just as we admirably did when faced with the AIDS crisis in the ’80s and ’90s.”
– Jason Bourner, community member and harm reduction worker

People are dying. It is past time for community organizations in The Village to stand with the harm reduction community and actively confront this crisis.

PRESS AVAILABILITY at 12:30pm at Barbara Hall Park