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Tale of two SCS cities: How does Guelph stack up to Barrie?

'It’s natural for people to feel worried, especially if they have no direct experience with addiction,' says health official in Guelph. 'We anticipated this and worked hard to remove the stigma that too often surrounds addiction'
2019-03-20 Opioids RB 4
Several harm reduction tools are shown in a file photo. | Raymond Bowe/BarrieToday

Barrie and Guelph have been linked for comparison purposes in conversations around the topic of a supervised consumption site (SCS), but it appears the two cities have taken a much different path. 

The comparison makes some sense, mainly due to city size and population, but also due to proximity to Toronto.

While Barrie continues to wait for word from the province on possible approval for an SCS in the city, Guelph already has one up and running. The comparison 

Talks of opening an SCS in Barrie came to council in 2019. During the last term, councillors endorsed a preferred site, located at 11 Innisfil St., in June 2021.

More than 40 months later, there's still no sign the facility will open. 

Guelph has had its SCS — referred to by the province as a Consumption and Treatment Services (CTS) facility — since 2018. The site is located at the Guelph Community Health Centre (GCHC) and offers four booths where drug users can inject themselves under the supervision and monitoring of trained medical staff. 

People can also access harm reduction supplies and naloxone kits, and receive support for addiction treatment, primary care, mental health, and social services.

An SCS/CTS provides a safe space and sterile equipment for individuals to use pre-obtained drugs under the supervision of health-care staff. Consumption refers to taking opioids and other drugs by injection, smoking, snorting, or orally.

And there has been plenty of debate on both sides of the argument about opening an SCS in Barrie. 

Sarah Haanstra, who's the director of integrated programs at GCHC, says she understands the hesitation at first for such a facility, which is why she also says GCHC found ways to eliminate the fear.

“It’s natural for people to feel worried, especially if they have no direct experience with addiction," Haanstra told BarrieToday. "At Guelph CHC, we anticipated this and worked hard to remove the stigma that too often surrounds addiction.

“From the beginning, we invited community members to see the space for themselves — when it was closed — and we made ourselves available to help answer their questions," she added. 

The facility continues to offer tours regularly for community members.

Barrie’s proposed site is not in a health-care facility; none of the final four sites that considered were.

The current council-endorsed location on Innisfil Street is an office/warehouse building and is located across the street from a residential area.

The other sites strongly considered were 110 Dunlop St. W. Unit 4, 11 Sophia St. W., and 192 Bradford St.

Haanstra said it was an easier situation being that the Guelph location is already in a health-care facility.

“As a community health centre, we work to eliminate barriers to health and well-being, with a particular focus on priority populations,” she said. “By meeting people where they are at, and providing the health-care services and additional supports they need in their community, we are able to relieve some of the pressure from emergency rooms and hospitals.”

Guelph Mayor Cam Guthrie says that aside from being in a health-care facility, the location in Guelph may not have faced the same hurdles as the Barrie site, politically speaking.

“There was a time frame in the first term of the Ford government where there was an opportunity for pilots of these types of sites to be initiated without council endorsement,” Guthrie told BarrieToday. “So a group of health-care providers and stakeholders independently made the case for a pilot site to be up and running here.”

Eventually, Guelph city council had to endorse the site as being permanent, which they did, and everything continued running the same way.

Guthrie was asked if having the service is in an existing health-care facility made keeping it an obvious choice.

“Oh yes, very much. That was a big push, obviously, from the health-care providers at the health centre and those running it," he said. "They made a very clear case that it made sense to have it run out of that health-care facility. The supports were already in-house, health-care providers were already interacting and knew the clientele needing the service, it just made sense.”

Public health officials have said SCS facilities should be in a location where the drug use is happening, but here in Barrie, the city's hospital is not located downtown where the people who would use it are situated. 

While Guthrie says he believes the best scenario is to have an SCS in an existing health-care facility, "so long as the right supports, governance, partnership, and oversight are provided, it should work anywhere.”

Guthrie also admits he wasn't always in favour of an SCS in the Royal City. 

“I really had to push myself and put myself in an uncomfortable situation to be open to new information, new statistics, new relationships and it really allowed me to open my mind and see these are positive, life-saving places.” he said. “I’ve actually since delegated to the City of Cambridge when they were discussing the topic, in order to give my perspective on someone who has changed their view and saw how good these facilities are for a community.”

Haanstra said the Guelph site offers life-saving health service to prevent overdoses, but it's not just a space to consume drugs.

“Many clients of our CTS also access wraparound care services, such as addiction medicine, wound care, STI testing and treatment, and access to mental health or other social supports," she said. 

"By providing this safe, supervised space, we see fewer improperly discarded needles, decreased emergency room visits and prevention of overdose deaths,” Haanstra added. “As a health-care provider, we treat addiction like any other health condition."

There are 15 CTS facilties in Ontario, with the closest to Barrie being Toronto, which has six. Kingston, Hamilton, St. Catharines, London, and Thunder Bay each have one, while Ottawa has three.

From February 2019 to December 2022, the total number of overdose reversals at the Guelph CTS was 279, and the number of emergency department transfers was 10.

Here in the Barrie area in 2021, there were more than 800 emergency department visits for opioid poisonings among Simcoe-Muskoka residents, which was approximately 25 per cent higher than what was recorded the previous year.