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Despite backlash, health officials stand behind 90 Mulcaster for proposed injection site

New group called Safe Barrie asks for transparent, thorough public review of proposed supervised consumption site in downtown Barrie
Space at this building at 90 Mulcaster St., in Barrie, has been chosen as the site for a proposed supervised consumption site. Raymond Bowe/BarrieToday

Public health officials spearheading the provincial application for a safe injection site in Barrie will return to city hall tonight after being told to revisit their list of potential locations. 

But after circling back and having another look at their original list of potential venues for a supervised consumption site (SCS), they're digging in their heels on their preferred location at 90 Mulcaster St.

Earlier this month, council deferred a decision whether to endorse 90 Mulcaster for an SCS. After council heard from several people opposed to the location, the health groups behind the proposal were told to investigate a "more suitable location" for the facility, which still requires provincial approval. One location that council wanted the group to look at specifically was unused space at the Maple Avenue bus terminal.

The Gilbert Centre, Simcoe Muskoka District Health Unit and the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA) have been leading the push in the past several months to open an SCS in the city, which has one of the worst opioid problems among Ontario cities.

The group determined the best choice was 90 Mulcaster St., but when they brought their plan to council for endorsement, which was required before they could submit their application to the province, councillors told the group to revisit some of the other sites they had ruled out. 

Click here for the list of other potential SCS locations, which will be presented Monday. 

But health officials say other potential sites are "far inferior" when compared to 90 Mulcaster. 

A new group, called Safe Barrie, has come out against the Mulcaster location. 

Safe Barrie members say they are still trying to understand the process and how officials arrived at 90 Mulcaster as their preferred location, steering committee member Rowley Ramey told BarrieToday

"We want to air our concerns and don't believe we've been adequately informed, or that the information that's being supplied is fulsome in nature," he said. "I'm concerned our councillors are going to endorse something and they haven't even seen the full application. It doesn't mean we can't co-exist, but if we're going to co-exist, we need some assurances here."

Safe Barrie members won't be speaking to the issue tonight. Ramey said their presence "won't be in a vocal way, but in a visual way."

The Barrie resident, who's also managing director of the Seasons Centre for Grieving Children on McDonald Street, said the group has grown to more than 200 members in just a few short weeks. 

"Right now, it's still very grassroots," he said. "It's growing exponentially. We've got a mission, we've got some concerns and we've got a response. We're all business people and we're all stakeholders at the same time."

The public health groups behind the proposed SCS are expected to outline their site-selection process tonight.

According to a 31-page breakdown of their stance and how they arrived at their preferred site, they say they continue to have "one strong option for an SCS" and it remains to be 90 Mulcaster St. 

"The SCS planning committee has found it to be the only site that meets all of the selection criteria and practical needs of an SCS site, other than its proximity to a park, which has been addressed through additional mitigation strategies," the group writes in a report to city council. 

Some of the reasons they're still leaning toward 90 Mulcaster include the building is owned by CMHA Simcoe, "a highly supportive landlord," rather than what they say is a significantly more challenging and potentially unfeasible option of renting space elsewhere, which could jeopardize or delay provincial approvals and funding. The proximity of 90 Mulcaster to the neighbouring David Busby Centre was also cited as a reason to place it there. 

While other cities have placed supervised consumption sites inside community health centres, Safe Barrie believes 90 Mulcaster is being used as a test site for placing such a facility in a residential area, which could raise further issues.

After reading through the health officials' report that will be presented to council, Ramey said he doesn't believe it speaks to some of the concerns being raised by Safe Barrie. 

"I don't think there's been sufficient consultation and I don't think it takes into account whether it aligns or doesn't align with the strategic growth plan for Barrie," he said. "I'm concerned that these non-medical or social uses are popping up all over the place in Barrie, and there's not a real focus on how they connect. ... I don't think any of them are experts in city planning."

Ramey says putting an injection site beside the Busby Centre will make matters worse in the neighbourhood. 

"That site is already spilling out into the community, causing some harm, so how do we add another layer of complexity to that site and expect it to be controlled any better?" Ramey said. "Are those things even being asked?"

Safe Barrie is asking for a transparent and thorough public review of the proposed SCS in downtown Barrie. They say council shouldn't support "an incomplete application."

Instead, they want to see the city’s updated Official Plan and zoning bylaw to include policies for injection sites and methadone clinics, similar to what happens for businesses such as tattoo parlours and strip clubs.

Safe Barrie includes residents, business owners and health professionals, many of whom live or work in downtown Barrie.  They say the SCS proposal is "premature, lacks stakeholder engagement and fails to fairly and fully disclose and discuss all issues."

Their concerns include health risks, rising crime, and "overburdening of community services and reduced integration due to the creation of an undesirable cluster that marginalizes individuals in the area."

Ramey said he's not opposed to an SCS, which provides a safe place to people to ingest their own drugs with medical staff on hand in case of an overdose, but he doesn't believe there's been enough research about bringing such a facility to Barrie, "and location is only one aspect."

"I do understand we have a crisis in Barrie, and I believe a safe injection site, within its walls, has some merit," he said. "While you're within those confines, it can't help but be better, but I'm concerned about the influences around that area. What have we done to take care of those influences?

"I'm concerned that the site is already overtaxed, with the Busby Centre being there, which is adjoining to it and is a separate issue, but the mitigating strategies that we're using there, and our city's ability to keep it under control, doesn't seem to be effective," Ramey added. "I'm also not sure if the wraparound services are in close proximity, or even connected in any way, shape or form."

The province is accepting applications for what the Doug Ford government calls Consumption and Treatment Services (CTS) facilities. If one is approved for Barrie, it's expected to be open from 7 a.m. until 1 a.m. the following morning, seven days a week. Local officials expect between 30 and 45 people using the site daily. It would have around 20 staff members, including three full-time and three part-time nurses. It would also have an estimated $1.5-million annual operating budget. 

Some of the province's site criteria includes that the facility be close to where people use drugs; that it be on a bus route; that it be no less than 100 to 200 metres of sensitive land uses such as child-care facilities, parks and schools; and that it have wraparound services.