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Local Journalism Initiative
A ‘mammoth step’: New proposed rules would put more supports for drug users into community housing, though some residents are concerned
Toronto Community Housing Corporation has proposed a new policy that would see more supports in its buildings for people who use drugs, with the aim of reducing overdoses as drug toxicity deaths have spiked city-wide. The policy, expected to go before TCHC’s board on Feb. 26, would allow community housing residents to provide peer support to those who use drugs, and says that the agency won’t evict any tenants solely for using illicit substances. Supervised consumption would not be allowed, and any new services would require a building meeting beforehand. The housing agency has had pushback from some residents when introducing supports for tenants who use drugs before, and hopes the new rules will ease any potential concerns. The new policy would pave the way for the supply of clean needles, tourniquets, naloxone — a medication used to treat opioid overdoses — or other services to substance users at TCHC properties, which the leader of one Parkdale health centre called a “mammoth step.” Toronto saw a 90 per cent increase in suspected opioid overdose deaths from 2019 to 2020, city data shows. “We know that some of these fatalities are happening in TCHC buildings,” said Angela Robertson, executive director of the Parkdale Queen West Community Health Centre. TCHC’s community safety unit reported administering naloxone 14 times between June 2020 and January 2021. Advocates say harm reduction programs can help destigmatize addiction and reduce deaths, but some residents have baulked at having in-building services they see as encouraging substance use or putting it more in public view. That tension has been laid bare in recent years, via a harm reduction program piloted at TCHC’s 250 Davenport Rd. Drug use at the building had always been an issue, said Chris King, a resident since 2005. Most complaints were about discarded needles in stairways, halls or elevators. In 2018, a drop-in program started where tenants could dispose of old needles, ask for clean ones to be brought to their unit, get something to eat and learn about other supports. King is intimately familiar with addiction. For years, he used any substance that didn’t require a needle, and remembers feeling “feral,” as his addiction superseded any care for himself or those around him. Without his family, who made him feel loved and supported, “I would not have crawled out from where I was,” he said. He sees harm reduction programs as an extension of the help he had — a way to provide TCHC residents going through addictions with support and understanding, without expecting sobriety from them. “Having people who understand who and what you are, despite what you do, goes a long way towards any success an addict will have in recovering from their addiction,” King said. But Cheryl Zimmer, fellow resident, said she was incensed when she learned the pilot program was handling out needles. Zimmer worries that such in-building services could attract more drug activity from outside (the new policy would bar those running support programs from trying to provide services to people who don’t live in TCHC buildings), and lead to more use in common areas. “This is my home, too,” Zimmer said. “Yes, there is a handful of people with addiction issues, however the majority of the building isn’t.” Zimmer said she fears all TCHC residents risk being branded as “drug addicts” if usage becomes more visible in the buildings. She isn’t the only resident with concerns. A group of fewer than 10 tenants had adamantly opposed the program, TCHC manager Scott Kirkham said at a recent committee meeting. “There was just a lot of emotion and fear driving a particular number of tenants, and I think they just needed to have their concerns heard,” said support worker Mon Martins. She believes some of that ire could have been avoided if they’d first held a building meeting before bringing in the services, as would be required under the new rules. “We were not trying to take over their building and cause a bunch of chaos,” Martins added. Suzanne Fish, a revitalization manager with TCHC, said the Davenport drop-in sees between 25 and 30 tenants regularly — virtually, for now — and has led to more than 120 referrals to services like food banks, legal help, as well as mental health and addiction supports. Upwards of 80,000 needles were collected for safe disposal. But data on overdoses in community housing buildings isn’t tracked or shared, making it hard to tell if fatalities have gone up or down, or where any hot spots are. TCHC said it doesn’t collect medical information on tenants, including causes of death. Toronto Public Health said that data isn’t available — though it releases heatmaps of overdose calls to paramedics, showing the hardest-hit neighbourhoods. At another TCHC property at 100 High Park Ave., Iye Sanneh, a resident and Parkdale health-centre worker, said she’s administered naloxone in the building roughly 10 times in the last year — an uptick from what she saw in past years. Sanneh recalled an evening in December when she was roused from sleep by frantic knocking. Someone was overdosing a few floors below — for at least the fifth time by her count. After administering naloxone, Sanneh remembers her neighbour crying out for their mother. “You see somebody at their most vulnerable,” she said. “I don’t think people get it until they’re actually there.” People will use drugs whether there are supports in place or not, Sanneh said. In her view, supports reduce the shame associated with drug use — and create an environment where people might feel more at ease asking for help, without fearing the loss of their homes or other consequences. Parkdale centre’s Robertson said she believes there may “always” be some tension surrounding harm reduction supports. But the policy eliminated institutional obstacles, like use-of-space agreements barring distribution of harm reduction supplies, she said. “It would also be a signal to all the residents in TCHC buildings, that this is a health strategy to respond to a health need,” she said. “The policy is long in coming, and I’m elated that we’ve finally arrived.” Victoria Gibson, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Toronto Star
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