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Study sparks debate on impact of Toronto safe consumption sites

Near the intersection of Boston Ave. and Queen St. E., a security guard in a yellow vest stands outside South Riverdale Community Health Centre, scanning the street.

The centre, which has been located on Queen St. E for over 25 years, provides a range of community services like access to family doctors, food programs, and harm reduction supplies.

In 2017, another service was added to the list offered by the centre — a safe consumption site.

Since then, Allen Malloy says disruptive activity by individuals who use drugs has increased in the area around the site.

“They usually sit in front of my store on these planters and they smoke cigarettes,” said the owner of Daniel’s Jewellers, which is across the street from the centre.

“In the summer, I have to close the doors so the smoke doesn’t get in …when (the clients) come out on the streets, they’re falling asleep on the benches. They’re dancing on the sidewalks or the road, and we have a school close by. It’s not good for the little children to see this.”

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Malloy says he’s a recovered addict, and now runs a 12-step program to help others overcome addiction.

For him, there is no question that a safe consumption site is a vital service for preventing overdose deaths.

But he wonders if the centre’s location is appropriate.

Click to play video: 'Safe injection site worker among arrests made in Leslieville shooting that killed innocent mother'

Safe injection site worker among arrests made in Leslieville shooting that killed innocent mother

Derek Finkle, who lives across the street from the centre, shares Malloy’s concerns.

Finkle claims he’s witnessed several drug deals in front of the centre, and has often picked up needles off his street, as drug-related litter began to pile up.

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“How is this appropriate in close proximity to a school and six daycares?” Finkle told Global News.

Last July, a shooting across the street from the centre left 44-year-old Karolina Huebner-Makurat dead.

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The innocent mother of two was not involved in the altercation that led to the shooting, but was hit by a stray bullet.

An employee at the centre is among the three people charged in connection with the case.

Police believe the altercation was a robbery, potentially involving both drugs, money, or both.

Authorities say Karolina Huebner-Makurat was an innocent bystander who fell victim to the shooting in July 2023. Facebook

A proposed class action lawsuit has been launched by area-residents against the centre, over safety concerns.

“Those kinds of community concerns are absolutely real,” Jason Altenberg, CEO of South Riverdale Community Health Centre, told Global News.

Altenberg says work has been ongoing since the shooting to make sure the needs of both clients and community members are being met.

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Security guards have been stationed outside the centre every day, he said, and drug litter is being swept daily from the surrounding area.

“We have a new community liaison committee that’s made up of residents, businesses, and other important partners that meets very regularly and are working on plans to address all these community needs,” said Altenberg.

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Outpouring of support for Caroline Huebner–Makurat, the innocent bystander killed in Leslieville shooting

The concerns come on the heels of a new study that suggests Toronto safe consumption sites have had a life-saving effect on the neighbourhoods that surround them.

The study, published in The Lancet, looked at the number of overdose deaths within a 2.5-km radius of nine consumption sites in Toronto.

The study found that — six months after the sites opened — overdose deaths in areas surrounding consumption sites decreased by two-thirds, while areas without a consumption site didn’t see a significant mortality reduction.

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The data is from 2017 to 2019.

“This was a period when fentanyl was just starting to flood Toronto’s drug market,” said Dan Werb, the principal author of the study and executive director of the Centre on Drug Policy Evaluation.

The study is significant, Werb says, as it provides data on how lives were saved outside the walls of safe consumption sites, rather than inside.

Finkle argues that the study is not an accurate reflection of Toronto’s current state, as drug overdose deaths jumped in 2020 and beyond —  years that the study did not review.

Werb says data from 2020, the year when the COVID-19 pandemic began, would’ve made it difficult to interpret findings that relate specifically to the effect of the sites alone.

He says his team is currently conducting research on the most recent years.

Back on Queen St. E, Malloy isn’t happy about the location of the site, but he isn’t sure what alternative spot would be best.

Werb says that ensuring the sustainability of safe consumption sites means community concerns have to be addressed. Addressing overdose deaths and drug market violence means tackling Canada’s “out of control” drug market.

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More protests over Richmond’s safe consumption site proposal process

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