Edmonton no longer allowing contract outreach workers to hand out needles in transit stations

Harm reduction advocates are criticizing a recent City of Edmonton decision to no longer allow contract outreach workers to hand out clean needles and pipes in public transit areas and pedways. 

The City of Edmonton established an opioid response team in transit spaces last spring, hiring Boyle Street Community Services to bring medical professionals and outreach workers downtown.

Workers gave out harm reduction supplies, including food, naloxone, educational materials, syringes and pipes to people in pedways and transit stations. Educating people, referring them to services and picking up needles were also part of the program’s mandate.

As of Feb. 1, the team has stopped giving out needles and pipes, Ryan Birch, the director of Edmonton Transit Service’s bus operations, told CBC News in an emailed statement. 

Birch said the team has “refocused their efforts to support bylaw changes.” City council approved amendments to the Conduct of Transit Passengers bylaw in June of last year. The updated bylaw says “visibly using a controlled substance” on transit property is “inappropriate behaviour.” 

The city says the change will prevent negative interactions between people working in transit areas and those trying to consume drugs there.

“This clarified approach recognizes that even when the distribution of these supplies is combined with messaging about where to use and not use, open drug use in the spaces continues to result in safety concerns and exposure to potential harm,” Birch said.

Businesses and governments have funnelled more resources into addressing social disorder in and around LRT stations, responding to numerous calls for safety, but harm reduction advocates say limiting access to clean needles and pipes in these spaces is a misguided and dangerous decision.

“That decision goes against all evidence, it puts lives at risk, it puts communities at risk and it will increase the health-care costs that we all have to pay for,” said Petra Schulz of the peer support group Moms Stop the Harm. 

Rebecca Haines-Saah, a public health sociologist and associate professor at the University of Calgary’s Cumming School of Medicine, said distributing clean needles and pipes is a proven intervention to curb the spread of infectious diseases like hepatitis B, hepatitis C, HIV and other blood-borne illnesses.

A naloxone kit, a hammer (perhaps a sledge or engineer hammer), food and clothing were among the debris on an Edmonton LRT car during a morning ride downtown in April 2022. (Cort Sloan/CBC)

Schulz said people who don’t have access to clean drug supplies or safe consumption sites will use drugs in riskier ways.

She said one member of her network, who lost a son to an overdose, lost her daughter just two years later. Her daughter contracted the heart infection endocarditis because she did not have clean needles. 

“I hope the city sees the light and reverses this regressive policy,” Schulz said. 

Boyle Street’s communications manager, Elliott Tanti, said outreach workers did not encourage people to use drugs by distributing needles and pipes.

“People are already using and they’re already using in these locations, so it’s about making sure that they can do it in the safest way,” he said. 

He said workers try to build relationships with drug users so they can help them pursue recovery and offering supplies is part of that process.

Since the City of Edmonton is funding the response team, he said Boyle Street must follow its rules.

Steve Bradshaw, president of the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 569, said the union supports harm reduction from a humanitarian perspective, but members are frequently walking on drug paraphernalia in their workplace.

“We want to help people, but we also want everyone to be safe,” he said.

Bradshaw said members support the Community Outreach Transit Teams helping people in LRT stations, but a shortage of social workers is restricting that program’s expansion.

He said the federal and provincial governments should provide more funding and be contributing solutions, including more affordable housing.

Three men wearing jeans and backpacks stand on a snowy street.
The Alberta Alliance Who Educates and Advocates Responsibly, a harm reduction organization, has chapters in Edmonton, Red Deer, Calgary and Lethbridge. (Submitted by Kat Hedges)

Kat Hedges, the strategic communications coordinator for the Alberta Alliance Who Educate and Advocate Responsibly, a harm reduction organization, said people who use drugs choose to do so in public spaces like transit stations because they want to be around others in case they overdose. 

Hedges said in Calgary, outreach workers cannot work in transit areas unless they are accompanied by peace officers, but they can meet people nearby.

“I’d like to see outreach workers and community service organizations band together so they can work around this issue, because I don’t necessarily see it changing anytime soon,” she said.

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