Tuesday night’s all-candidates meeting was designed to hit on issues which local organizations believe need to be talked about in-depth, including the establishment of safe injection sites in Barrie.
The all-candidates accountability assembly at Grace United Church was open to all candidates and saw 21 council hopefuls attend.
The Simcoe County Alliance to End Homelessness (Barrie Chapter), Simcoe County Poverty Reduction Task Group, Grace United Church and KAIROS, as well the Gilbert Centre, teamed up to host the event hoping to have candidates commit to certain causes.
Gilbert Centre officials want a commitment to support an overdose prevention site (OPS) as well as a safe injection site (SIS) in the middle of the current opioid crisis.
There have been 22 overdose deaths in Simcoe-Muskoka so far this year and Matt Turner, harm reduction co-ordinator at the Gilbert Centre, was on hand Tuesday night to meet with candidates and residents alike.
“Currently, Barrie has a rate of 136.3 overdoses per 100,000 while the provincial rate 55.8 per 100,000, so we are over the provincial average," Turner said. "As well, we have seen a 68 per cent increase in the first quarter of 2018 compared to last year. That just isn’t acceptable.
“One thing we need to do is provide overdose prevention sites, which are safe places people can inject under medical supervision of a nurse or social worker," Turner added. "They can be monitored so they don’t overdose and if they do they will be taken hospital right away.”
Contrary to the popular belief, Turner said these safe injection sites do not provide drugs to people, but merely act as a safe place for those who already have a drug problem to inject.
“Someone will go to the OPS or SIS with their own drugs, we do not provide people with drugs, but we would safe needles,” said Turner. “Some of the councillors were concerned that the sites would draw folks in, but these safe injection sites don’t do that and have been shown to be used by those with a long history of drug use.
"It isn’t like a Tim Hortons popping up and saying come on in and get what we’ve got; that’s not what we’re doing," Turner said. "I use the example that SIS is Loblaws and OPS is No Frills in that they’re both grocery stores at the heart of them, but Loblaws has more services, No Frills has very little."
Turner said an SIS has a lot more services, while an OPS offers the bare minimum, but they might also have addictions services.
"People aren’t going to go use drugs and go off about their day," Turner added. "He will have services there to help them out.”
Those pushing for the sites are awaiting a provincial decision, hopefully by Oct. 31, for approval of these spots.
An application for a Barrie location was put in for 21 Bradford St., which is at the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA) building. Officials at Gilbert Centre, which is one of the lead agencies behind the local application, are still awaiting word.
The topic is a hot one lately, but BarrieToday spoke to mayoral and downtown candidates, as Ward 2 is not only the location of the majority of the city’s affected, but also where an OPS and SIS would likely go.
Incumbent mayor Jeff Lehman has already made some comments on the issue, but wants to hear more on another before providing his full endorsement.
“I’m quite happy to commit to an overdose prevention site and have gone on record in support of having an OPS in Barrie,” said Lehman. “I don’t know enough about safe injection sites. I want to know more and I want to understand the plan a lot better before I make a public commitment about an SIS.”
Ram Faerber, who is also running for mayor, was very clear in his stance.
“I don’t believe in safe injection sites," Faerber told BarrieToday. "I don’t agree they should be anywhere downtown nor surrounding areas.”
Rose Romita, who is the incumbent councillor in Ward 2, told BarrieToday she doesn't believe those who use the facilities are going to stop using drugs.
“Harm-reduction strategies promote and normalize injection drug use instead of trying to provide treatment and reduction of illegal drug use,” she said. “Note that those in favour of a safe and supervised injection site will say that such a site promotes further drug-treatment programs.
"While this may be true, that is not its primary goal and there is no substantial evidence that people who use these sites go on to treatment and end drug use," Romita added. "I think that the wider community would agree that more policing and enforcement, along with more treatment -- detox centres and recovery programs -- as opposed to the narrow view of the minority represented by the agencies that are the promoters of harm reduction and safe, supervised injection sites as they stand. “
Keenan Aylwin, who is also running in Ward 2, said he wants the sites, but believes what's also important is getting to the root of the drug issue.
“I am in support of a safe consumption site because they save lives,” he said. “Knocking on doors in Ward 2, I've heard from people and business owners that used needles are being left on the streets and in parks, and this is unacceptable.
"We need a safe place where drug users can go to access supports, get help for their addiction and dispose of their needles properly," he added. "We must ensure that having a safe consumption site is not used as an excuse for inaction on tackling the root causes of the opioid crisis.”
Ward 2 candidate Richard Forward says he's definitely opposed to the sites and believes it will hurt the look and feel of downtown Barrie as a destination.
“Unlike others running in Ward 2, let me be clear. I do not support a safe injection site in the downtown,” Forward told BarrieToday. “Our downtown is a vibrant community and the core of our city. It is also a tourist destination and place for all of us to spend time shopping, dining, and enjoying the waterfront. It is not a place for an injection site.
"As a society and a community, we do need to deal with addiction and its devastating results. We want to, and need to, save lives," he added.
"What I will do, when elected, is work with the mayor and council to set up a co-ordinated analysis of the situation we face and determine what the appropriate solutions are," Forward said. "This analysis will involve health-care professionals, emergency services, police and organizations like the CMHA. It is only with the combined expertise of our community that we will solve this problem together.”
Ward 2 candidate Yolanda Gallo told BarrieToday she supports the proposed sites and believes it will benefit the downtown.
“The City of Barrie does not have time to review this crisis,” she said. “Many of the organizations offering services have specific mandates that leave many gaps to address this crisis.
"A temporary, safe site must happen as it will allow respite to all downtown businesses and residents and give all ward residents their downtown back," Gallo added. "It's time for the City of Barrie to get real and address the elephant in the community by involving the community, not just select agencies who won't share information and work in silos.”
The Barrie Chamber of Commerce has organized a debate for Monday, Oct. 15 from 6-8 p.m. at Lions Gate Banquet Hall, located at 386 Blake St., beginning at 6 p.m.
A Ward 2 all-candidates forum will also be held Tuesday, Oct. 16 from 7-9 p.m. at the Five Point Theatre, located at 1 Dunlop St. W.