Harm reduction advocates disheartened by government defunding of Lethbridge supervised consumption site
LETHBRIDGE -- Harm reduction advocates said they are disheartened and appalled by the Alberta Government’s decision to replace the supervised consumption site in Lethbridge with a motorhome-based facility.
Friends of Medicare said a site that has a two-person capacity won’t be large enough to meet the number of clients who use one of Canada’s busiest supervised consumption sites.
“This is like putting a Band-Aid on a bigger problem,” said executive director Sandra Azocar. “We want some commitment from the government that these services will continue to exist.”
The province announced Thursday it was cutting off funding to ARCHES, the non-profit organization that operates the site. It also released an audit that found serious mismanagement of taxpayer funds, including just over $1.6 million being unaccounted for due to missing documentation for expenditures from 2017 to 2018.
The audit also listed other areas of spending which Associate Minister of Mental Health and Addictions Jason Luan described as “disturbing and extremely disappointing.”
The government has asked Alberta Health Services to set up a mobile overdose prevention site in Lethbridge, with the goal of a seamless transition from the service provided by ARCHES.
As of Friday, the SCS was still operating. A spokesperson for the ARCHES board of directors said they are awaiting information from the province before commenting.
They have been told to expect direct communication from the government early next week.
Azocar said the financial situation wasn’t created by the people using the site and they can’t be left out on the street without the life-saving services all Albertans deserve.
She maintains it has been clear from government rhetoric that they don’t support harm reduction, and the audit findings create a perfect opportunity to defund a service they don’t agree with.
Friends of Medicare said the overdose crisis that began in 2013 is still a raging fire, and without proper services the city will see a return to issues that existed before the SCS was opened.
“More people using underground, more people dying in their own homes, more people dying on the street,” said Azocar.
“And definitely more of a negative impact on the community as a whole.
Mayor Chris Spearman said they will "leave it to the province to bring forward the next steps as to how they are going to address the issues."
But he added the city certainly doesn’t want the problem to grow worse in the community.
Spearman said the city is confident that its funding to ARCHES — which was used to provide complex housing and supports for people with severe addictions — were spent appropriately.
Coun. Blaine Hyggen, who failed to get council support last year to end funding for the supervised consumption site, pending a government review, said he respects the province's decision and will stay focused on a safe and viable community.
“In light of the announcement yesterday from our provincial partners, I am confident Lethbridge will be on the right path for a healthier future," he said.
Among the vocal critics of the SCS was nearby business owner Doug Hamilton. He issued a statement reading, “I’m thankful to see the provincial government move toward a recovery focused plan for our city’s most vulnerable, and my hope is with AHS leading the model, we will see those members of our community struggling with addiction get the help they need.”
Alberta Health Services said it can’t provide a date on when it will open the mobile overdose prevention site, adding things are still “very early” in the process.
It’s also unclear what will happen to a wide range of other programs that are being offered by ARCHES. The AIDS Reduction Community Harm Education & Support Society also works to reduce harm associated with HIV/AIDS and Hepatitis C, operates a needle pickup program, queer and indigenous support programs, and a community outreach addictions program.