Closure of Lethbridge safe consumption site created safety concerns: study
New research explores impact of closure by talking directly to people who use drugs
The closure of North America’s most widely used safe consumption site has created safety concerns for people who use drugs, according to a new study.
The supervised consumption site in downtown Lethbridge, Alta., closed amid controversy in August 2020. It was replaced with an overdose prevention site—essentially a motorhome parked in a nearby industrial park—with fewer support services.
Researchers from Athabasca University (AU), University of Alberta, and University of Winnipeg interviewed 50 people who use drugs about the impact of the closure, and their impressions of the alternative facility. Community members reported feeling less safe due to the potential for violence near the motorhome, and less likely to use it overall due to location and lack of support services.
Giving voices to people who use drugs
Project co-investigator Dr. Carolyn Greene, an associate professor of criminology at AU, said the perspective and findings are crucial for jurisdictions like Alberta to improve policy decisions that can have life-or-death consequences for people who use drugs and are at risk of overdose.
“We clearly need to establish the evidence based on hearing from the folks that are living this reality,” Greene. “We need their voices, and we need their guidance, in terms of what it is they need to make changes—if they want to change.”
“We clearly need to establish the evidence based on hearing from the folks that are living this reality. We need their voices, and we need their guidance, in terms of what it is they need to make changes—if they want to change.”– Dr. Carolyn Greene, associate professor of criminology
The research team, which includes Dr. Katharina Maier from U of Winnipeg and Dr. Marta-Marika Urbanik from U of A, had previously explored experiences related to supervised consumption sites in Calgary and Edmonton. That included exploring barriers to accessing sites, and experiences of community members due to surveillance by police officers, private security, and others.
Based on that research, they planned to explore whether victimization fears and experiences impact access to services in Lethbridge. But when the supervised consumption site, run by the not-for-profit ARCHES, was shut down suddenly, they switched gears to explore the impact of that policy decision.
Related: Opinion: Supervised consumption sites reduce drug overdoses and disease transmission—and deserve government support
Interviews about drug use in Lethbridge
The team often spent 10- to 12-hour days on the streets of Lethbridge talking to people about their experiences with the former site and the new motorhome. In some cases, those were formal interviews but other times, Greene said, they were just “hanging out with people, talking, and seeing what life was like.”
“People were extremely interested. They want to talk and share.”
The team soon found that the mobile overdose prevention site’s location created problems for clients, despite it being only a 10-minute walk from the ARCHES facility. For starters, accessing the site from downtown requires people to walk across a narrow sidewalk on a busy bridge over Highway 3.
People reported being targets of motorists who would sometimes throw garbage or hurl racist insults at members of the community, she added. “The fear in terms of walking there was palpable for a lot of folks.”
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Fear of violence
The mobile site is also located in a densely populated area on a dead-end street across from a shelter and soup kitchen. There were encampments in the area, and people reported “a lot of fighting,” Greene said. “There was just a lot of conflict and violence that they didn’t want to be part of.”
The provincially run overdose prevention site also lacks support services that were provided at the federally approved supervised consumption site. Those services included information about housing and employment help like resumé writing.
“All the kinds of basic services that are needed for folks that need to get a leg up, to quit drugs if they want to, or to help them find a better quality of life,” Green said.
The mobile site also lacked any kind of space for socialization, which community members said was another drawback.
Opioid epidemic costs lives, resources
Greene said governments across the country are allocating billions to address homelessness, but often don’t seem to be getting at the root issues. Talking to people about their lived experiences is an important part of research and policymaking, she said.
“Generally, society doesn’t want to listen to the homeless and people who use drugs. People are much more likely to dismiss them.”
“Generally, society doesn’t want to listen to the homeless and people who use drugs. People are much more likely to dismiss them.”– Dr. Carolyn Greene
The research isn’t just academic. It’s also personal for Greene, who at one time spent years living on the streets. That experience not only makes it easier to build trust with people affected by the Lethbridge closure, but shaped her interest in wanting to help.
“Those experiences, they stick with you. They shape you.”
Supervised consumption sites save lives
Greene acknowledged that supervised consumption sites are a controversial topic and the research team has had to navigate. But the research shows these sites save lives. Managing one overdose at a supervised consumption site can save $1,600 in costs for emergency services.
“You can’t force people to go into treatment, you can’t force them off drugs. But you can help to facilitate services that will increase the chances that someone will choose to quit drugs,” Greene said. “But most importantly, you can help them with services that will help them sustain recovery.”
Greene said the team is currently conducting similar research in other Canadian cities.