- Medical and Dental Services
- Children and Youth Programs
- Family Programs
- Community Support Services
John (not his real name) and I were friends in high school. Like many others we lost touch. John went to one university and I went to another. He was smart, very outgoing and there was little question he was someone who would be successful in life.
A couple of years ago we held a reunion and John was one who did not come. Reunions are a time to renew friendships, find out what people are doing and, of course, inquire as to what happened to those who are not there.
No one really seemed to know or have recent information on John. But there were rumours. If you believe them, John did not finish university but got involved in some shady businesses which went bankrupt and left him broke. There were stories that he was living on the streets. There were reports of alcohol and drug abuse as well. Bottom line is no one knew if John was still alive, or had succumbed to the brutality of living on the streets.
I did make an attempt to find him but according to Google, he does not seem to exist. So I do not know what happened. If you buy into the rumours and if he did succumb, he has become just another public health statistic. On average between 300 and 400 people die on the streets of Toronto as a result of unsafe injection drug use. From 2004 to 2013 the number of deaths grew by 41 per cent.
Although it is not an epidemic, street drug use has become a significant problem in this city. It has resulted in deaths by over dose, Hepatitis and HIV/AIDS. We can only wonder how many of these deaths were entirely preventable.
It also has public costs. Treating a person with hepatitis, for example, costs the health care system about $60,000 and there is always the danger associated with discarded needles.
There is one safe injection site in North America. Located in Vancouver, Insite serves a population of users that are either homeless or living in shelters. They have reduced deaths through injection by 35 percent and see just over a thousand persons a day.
I could not find any data on how many people went off injection use because of Insite. My guess would be very few. The precarious life of living on the street is not an environment that is conducive to eliminating drug dependence. The research clearly shows that a strong system of social supports is essential to rehabilitation. Insite is keeping people alive, saving the health care system millions of dollars and reducing the risk to non-users by reducing the number of discarded needles on the street. Perhaps that’s good enough.
It goes without saying that many of their clients have mental health issues. These people face real stress on a daily basis. Living on the street is not “executive stress”. Their stress is real and is often about figuring out where your next meal with come from.
But John did not live in Vancouver so there was no access to the supports he required. Toronto does not have such a service although the City’s Board of Health is making another attempt to bring such a service here.
There will be an outcry; there is no doubt about that. Safe injection sites do not increase the number of IV drug users. No one would choose to take up heroin simply because they know they can now get a clean needle.
Injection sites currently exist they are just not safe. You will likely find them in a back alley, discarded building or the back of a car.
No, safe injection sites are about reducing the harm from a behaviour that already exists. Being an addict should not be a death sentence. John was my friend. He was also someone’s child, brother and possibly father.
Whatever happened to him that found him on the streets we will never know. We do have it within our power to keep people like John alive.
We need to support the creation of a safe injection site in Toronto. It is within our power to save lives.