Despite years of controversy, Edmonton residents came out strongly in support of new supervised drug injection sites in a city report released Thursday.
That's touching the hearts of those on the front line.
"Oh my God, that's awesome," said Shanell Twan, a peer support worker for people with addictions who has been attending funeral after funeral as fentanyl and other overdose deaths rise.
"Maybe hearts and minds can be opened," she said. "That's absolutely amazing."
A coalition of support workers and activists are trying to get 24-hour supervised drug injection services in the inner city, both at the Royal Alexandra Hospital and a three-site partnership focused around McCauley.
Peer support worker Shanell Twan hopes supervised injection sites will help step the mounting death toll from drug overdose.
They're reporting back to council after a two-month community consultation, the last step before seeking federal approval for a supervised injection site. Volunteers went door-to-door to businesses and residents within four blocks of the sites. They also met with drug users and ran a survey of the larger Edmonton population.
In that survey, 81 per cent said they strongly or somewhat agreed with supervised injection sites.
Seventy-nine per cent said these services were very or somewhat important. That's out of 1,869 Edmonton residents who took the survey. It was sent to a diverse group of Edmonton residents who previously signed up to get monthly surveys on city-related topics.
The coalition – Access to Medically Supervised Injection Services Edmonton – did not report how many of the 165 people who attended open houses on the proposal or spoke at the doors were in favour. That engagement was focused on answering questions and ensuring any concerns were being mitigated as much as possible, said Elaine Hyshka, a University of Alberta assistant professor and member of the coalition.
A model of how the supervised injection sites would look in Edmonton.
It was not a poll, but volunteers reported they felt local support was widespread, she said. "Most people were positive or neutral."
Twan said the mounting death toll has been depressing. "It's taking a toll on front-line workers and people on the ground."
Fifty-one people died provincewide in the first quarter of 2017, and Twan said it seems like every week her team gets word someone else they know passed away.
Edmonton would have supervised injection sites at the Boyle McCauley Health Centre, Boyle Street Community Services, and the George Spady Society, plus at the Royal Alexandra Hospital for admitted patients only.
The three sites would be open to the public and would have overlapping hours to offer almost 24-hour services.
Each space would have three rooms – a space to register, a room with a private cubical to inject, and a space to rest afterward. All three public sites would have social workers, addiction counsellors, nurses and peer support workers to make sure they are not simply a magnet for crime.
The coalition report said a "minority" of neighbouring residents were concerned about concentrating the service in the inner city. Many more people supported this as a start and said it should be expanded to other places. Residents said the status quo – with the deaths and 483 discarded needle complaints last year – isn't working.
"It's entirely possible the public is way ahead of government on these issues," said Ward 6 Coun. Scott McKeen, who also saw a lot of support for the concept. "Maybe we actually reached a point where the public gets it ... This is a life-saving health service."
Council will vote Monday on whether to send a letter of support to the federal government for these injection sites. The sites need official federal exemption to the Criminal Code before they can legally open.