(This article was written Sept. 27 and updated Oct. 1.)

London’s temporary overdose prevention site at 186 King Street could be out of funding very soon, and community members are already pooling personal resources and preparing for the worst-case scenario of a defunded TOPS.

They’re preparing by starting to organize their own emergency site to save lives in the case that harm reduction is itself reduced. And I think that speaks to a problem with our provincial government.

Or at least, this was the case on September 27 when I wrote this article. The provincial government had the kindness to wait two days before funding ran out to confirm that the site would stay afloat until the end of the month.

Someone was courteous enough to put their drug paraphernalia in a basket near the forks.
Someone was courteous enough to put their drug paraphernalia in a basket near the forks.

I hope that these community organizers keep on top of things. Because it sounds like their battle to save lives isn’t over yet. It’s only been pushed back a month.

A brief overview on the current TOPS:

It opened this February to address an immediate need in a specific area, downtown London in this case. These sites are a temporary fix until we can support a permanent supervised consumption facility (SCF). Two such sites are currently in the works. They offer services like clean needles, nurse-supervised drug use, and quick access to life-saving services if needed.

In short, they’re harm reduction services. And no, they don’t lead to an increase in drug use, and there is no evidence to suggest that they do, according to the Middlesex London Health Unit.

Temporary overdose prevention sites exist until a more stable consumption site comes along. But because they’re a temporary solution, the government has given them a temporary budget. The Ontario Ministry of Health originally provided enough cash to keep the site open for a few months.

“London’s TOPS has received $130,700 in one-time funding from the Ontario Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care,” writes the TOPS FAQ page, “for a three-to-six-month period of operation, which is renewable if necessary.” We’ve seen an extension of funding as recently as early August, according to this local CBC coverage.

The Ministry of Health has extended the site’s funding once since then. But that doesn’t mean it will happen again. The current extended funding allowed for the site to be active until Sept. 30. That’s three days away from the time I’m writing this opinion piece. It’s fair to be afraid if opioid frontline workers are scared too.

You don't need to venture far to see there is an opioid crisis in London.
You don’t need to venture far to see there is an opioid crisis in London.

It’s clear to site worker Blair Henry what will happen if the site is closed early. “Sons and daughters, brothers and sisters are going to be buried as a result of this decision,”

So what’s the word on the site’s funding?

The Ministry of Health has asked the federal government to extend the site’s funding according to the CBC.

But three days before the deadline, nobody knew whether this vital service would continue because there had been no word. For the Ministry of Health to wait two days before funding runs out to confirm or potentially deny funding is atrocious. And that stands alone from whether they actually fund the site or not.

Public health initiatives shouldn’t have to rely on regular people to provide the basic care in the opioid crisis.

I think of money, time, and resources being organized to support vulnerable people and I’m reminded of something familiar…

Oh right, that’s what I pay taxes for. According to the Ontario Ministry of Finance, our taxes pay for “integral services such as roads and highways, health care, hospitals, education, social services, provincial parks and the environment.” Last year’s 336 opioid-related deaths in a three-month span is enough, I think, to warrant publicly-funded action.

The needle counter on a collection bin - volunteer 'sweepers' scan 17 zones throughout London picking up used sharps.
The needle counter on a collection bin – volunteer ‘sweepers’ scan 17 zones throughout London picking up used sharps.

I think it says a lot when people are forced to self-organize to stop other people from dying because a government entity isn’t responding properly. The Ministry of Health’s lack of communication is dangerous. Because that’s really what these sites are all about: they’re harm reduction methods to stop people from dying while other programs and policies work to tackle the opioid crisis.

Temporary overdose prevention sites are not the be-all-end-all solution to the opioid crisis, not by a long shot. They’re the net beneath tightrope walkers to stop people from falling off and dying. And that net is vital.

Why I wrote this piece, and why I think it’s important to talk.

I didn’t write this opinion piece to virtue signal. Virtue signalling is a term I often read in the London Ontario reddit comments beneath articles on the downtown crowd.

I often find the term shuts down opinions that fight for marginalized voices. It’s possible to care about people and their rights and be vocal about it at the same time.

Writing this opinion piece is both a way to assert my stance on the opioid issue and our provincial government’s response. It highlights the efforts of a community group trying to save lives when it’s unclear whether the government will.

I acknowledge that there’s more I could be doing. But part of the fight to save lives in the opioid crisis is to stir public opinion. At least we’ll be talking about the issue of opioid harm and temporary overdose prevention site reductions instead of pretending the people they serve don’t exist.

 

Photos by Gerard Creces.

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