Winnipeg drug consumption site faces uncertain future

People who use the site will be forced to go back to unsafe spaces, officials with Sunshine House say.

Those looking for a supervised, safe space to consume drugs in Winnipeg may soon have nowhere to go as the only site in the city faces funding issues.

The Mobile Overdose Prevention Site (MOPS) is an RV equipped with harm reduction supplies like new needles, drug testing equipment, and employees who oversee the use of drugs in case of an accidental overdose.

“This type of service helps mitigate [harms] for a lot of communities and it should be a public health intervention that is supported by all three levels of government,” says Levi Foy, executive director of the non-profit Sunshine House that operates the site, “but, unfortunately, we’ve only had one level of government step up for a very short period of time.”

MOPS began operating last October in response to a high number of drug overdose deaths in the province.

Manitoba recorded 424 overdose deaths in 2021 alone, with 2022’s preliminary numbers showing a small decline for the first time since 2019.

Since the provincial government does not support safe consumption sites, MOPS received a federal exemption from Health Canada under the Controlled Drug and Substances Act and funding through their Substance Use and Addiction Program in June 2022.

But the $385,337 in funding ends this October, says Foy, and there is no extension in sight.

“We were pretty hopeful that Health Canada would look at considering just continuing the funding since it’s not a lot,” he says, noting, “there wasn’t a lot of opportunity for any additional funding either through the province or through the federal government.”

Most of the money covered salaries for the site’s seven employees – roles Foy says may become volunteer positions if MOPS can’t find additional monies.

It may result in his own lay-off to help keep MOPS going, he added.

Health Canada said in an email to APTN News it is launching a new call for proposals for the Substance Use and Addiction Program next month and encouraged Sunshine House to apply.

But Foy says they typically only fund new or enhanced services, and with the province and city not funding supervised consumption sites, Foy is scrambling.

“It’s really sad. It’s sad that we have to be out begging people for money,” he says. MOPS has “such a wonderful donor base and we have some support from private foundations – and that’s good and that’s nice – but it’s not the responsibility of individuals to be implementing public health interventions that we know work.”

Foy says the site sees more than 100 visits a day and has overseen 5,000 people using different types of drugs in the past nine months.

Site coordinator Davey Cole says the RV is more than just a safe space to use drugs.

“[F]olks don’t only just rely on us for safer consumption supervision, but also to check in and say Hi, to have a connection to folks who are around, to have a coffee, to get resources. To find connection to nurses that will come down here and meet people … There’s different community connections to health care here which is going to be a loss for a lot of people.”

Cole worries about what might happen if they close amid multiple epidemics of drug toxicity, accidental overdoses and extremely high HIV cases, which sharing needles contributes to.

He says with nowhere else to go, people who use the site will be forced to go back to the way things were before.

“Folks will go back into bathrooms, and they’ll go back into … parking lots and stairwells,” says Cole, “It’ll be back to the way it was before, finding random spaces to use in and that’s not what we want. That’s unsafe and we lose people like that.”

Foy says a safe place like MOPS where a person can relax makes the process of using drugs safer, as using in public can bring harassment and result in the person rushing or using more than they typically would.

He says the loss of Winnipeg’s only official site for supervised drug consumption might mean a loss of safety and life.

“There’s many things that I’m really proud of with MOPS. I’m proud of the way that the community continually comes together,” says Foy.

”The community who comes here and makes this space safe every day for themselves, who take care of one another, who ensure that everyone can live through the moment and they can see another day.”

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