In the two months since Cambridge council endorsed 150 Main St. for a consumption and treatment services site, those involved in putting an application together for the province say work has been happening behind the scenes to ensure the harm reduction facility opens its doors as soon as possible.
Kristin Kerr, the Cambridge North Dumfries Ontario Health Team (OHT) liaison for the City of Cambridge, said she couldn’t provide a specific timeline on the progress of the application but said the OHT is working diligently to support the provincial Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care, and Health Canada in finding an operator for the site.
"We certainly recognize the urgency of expediting this process given the need in the community right now,” she said.
That urgency is made aoparent every week by agencies working to support individuals in Cambridge.
And was expressed most acutely earlier this fall by the AIDS Committee of Cambridge, Kitchener-Waterloo, and Area (ACCKWA), which runs the drop-in centre at 150 Main Street and is one of several wraparound services cited in the application for the Cambridge CTS.
ACCKWA sought $10,000 in emergency bridge funding from the city to help support outreach workers who were experiencing burnout from the trauma of responding to the three to eight overdoses on the property every month.
"We are going to see another year-over-year increase in fatal overdoses in Waterloo Region," warned ACCKWA executive director Ruth Cameron Cameron at the time.
The problem, she added, is exacerbated by the tainted drug supply and the fact that Cambridge doesn’t have a consumption and treatment services site.
Last week, the Waterloo Region Integrated Drugs Strategy reported a "significant increase" in overdoses linked to light blue, red, teal or turquoise fentanyl, warning the drugs can cause life threatening reactions.
"I think what we’re seeing right now is the intersection of the pandemic and the opioid epidemic,” Kerr said. “That has been catastrophic for this population and the safety of this population.”
It doesn’t help that measures required to maintain everyone's health during the pandemic, like limited indoor contact, physical distancing, and isolation, are contrary to safe drug use, she said.
Adding to the urgency is fear about further restrictions from a fifth wave of COVID, the increasing toxicity of the drug supply and the loneliness and isolation that can affect drug use over the holidays.
But Kerr assured everything is moving in the right direction with the application.
Broad support for the Cambridge CTS already exists in the Cambridge North Dumfries OHT, which includes a cross section of service providers like Cambridge Memorial Hospital, long-term care providers, mental-health and addiction services providers and nurse practitioners."We are all feeling the same thing, Kerr said. "No one can argue the urgency of the situation but it also will take some time."
Cambridge Mayor Kathryn McGarry said knowing how urgently it's needed in the community makes the process seem even slower than it is.
She also knows once a potential operator for the site is found, the process to apply to the province is fairly complicated.
But she hopes the reasons council endorsed 150 Main in the first place will be the “foot in the door” the application needs in terms of making clear how ideal the location is.In comparison, it took four months to get the temporary CTS up and running at 150 Duke St. in Kitchener after council endorsed that location as the top candidate site.
The Kitchener location had far less going for it in terms of amenities or even the space needed to accommodate a CTS.
So, McGarry is hopeful knowing the province gives priority to sites that are within a community health centre already serving a large percentage of the intended population.
"I’m pretty confident the OHT, potential providers, the region... are looking to support the application moving ahead," McGarry said, adding she's not concerned about any potential political derailments.
"I think all of us who have been dealing with this situation and watching overdoses in a worried way want to see everything done to expedite the process and get this centre open sooner rather than later," McGarry said.
The mayor is also confident the application will address any concern from the community knowing about the detailed safety plan that has to be in place as part of the application from the operator.
She points to the community group of near neighbours of the Kitchener site, who after a year of meetings to address any concerns decided there were so few things to talk about they moved to bi-monthly meetings.
"Public safety is number one in our eyes and if there were any issues, we would be the first to call for assistance right away," McGarry said. “From what I understand, communities improve once they’ve got folks that are unfortunate enough to have to use, to actually be out of site and monitored during that period of time rather than being out in the open.”
To better illustrate the realities of the Kitchener CTS site, McGarry asked Chief of Police Bryan Larkin to comment on the Waterloo regional police experience during recent discussions around the $12.4 million increase in next year’s police budget.
McGarry wanted to know if Larkin views the CTS as an upstream service that can relieve some of the pressure on WRPS, which in the first eight months of the year responded to 833 overdose calls, 84 deaths and administered Narcan 48 times.
Larkin agreed the CTS is a key part of the region’s “multifaceted approach” to dealing with issues of addiction, homelessness, marginalization and related crimes.
“What’s happening in Cambridge should have some positive impacts,” Larkin said.
“I believe it’s the right approach. I think it’s a very empathetic approach and I recognize that this is a polarizing issue," he said. "People have very hard thoughts on decriminalization, on consumption treatment sites and I’m not here to change anybody’s mind, I’m here to follow the evidence.”
Among the statistics released by the Kitchener CTS site for its first full year of operation was the fact there were no overdose related deaths despite staff at the site responding to 188 overdoses in 2020.
The impact of having wrap-around services at the site resulted in 640 referrals to social services, 506 referrals to primary care, 2,060 referrals to mental health care and 138 referrals to addiction treatment.
Larkin says the evidence he's seen, “demonstrates there is no impact on policing in the neighbourhood, there are no adverse impacts on the surrounding area and, in fact, we saw reduction in police demands.”
“That experience is probably helpful for others to hear,” McGarry said, hopeful the statistics will relieve the anxieties and “well founded fears” some in Cambridge have expressed over the last few years.