As part of the Knowledge, Culture and Urban Affairs thematic group at the recent WC2 Conference at Ryerson University in Toronto, a group of us visited a newly opened a Supervised Injection Site (SIS) where drug users can inject and dispose of their needles within a safe environment operating next door to Ryerson Campus. It forms part of a wider ‘harm reduction’ strategy which the city along with its partners and Ryerson have adopted to tackle illegal drug use.
Toronto is in the midst of an opioid crisis. Due to Ryerson’s downtown location, it has recently experienced a high number of overdoses on campus. Rather than seeking to displace drug users into other areas or drive them underground, Ryerson has responded head-on by installing sharps containers (to enable the safe disposal of needles) in all bathrooms on campus and equipping its Security Team with Naloxone (a drug which reverses the symptoms of opioid overdose).
The city too has responded by opening its first SIS within the The Works (a harm reduction centre and methadone clinic funded by Toronto Public Health) which has operated on a site next door to Ryerson for over 20 years. Our group were given a tour of the SIS by its manager, Shaun Hopkins. Shaun explained how a Federal immunity has been granted at the site to enable drug users to inject personal supplies of illegal drugs there without risk of prosecution. Therefore the SIS is seen by its clients as a safe, non-judgmental, and private environment. Medical professions are also available on site and therefore immediate action can and has often been taken to treat any clients who overdose. Drug supplies can also be tested there and lives have been saved as a result of discovering lethal contaminates in some caches.
While Ryerson works closely with The Works as part of its outreach programme, there have been some challenges. For instance, Ryerson has installed a chain-link fence to ensure service users of the SIS don’t disturb staff and students. Kim Bailey of Ryerson’s Community Engagement Team explains how the university has met the challenge: ‘Ryerson has to balance the sometimes competing needs of the people who live in the community with the needs of the university … Urban universities have the opportunity to dedicate their resources to create innovative solutions that are inclusive and respectful of the dignity of all those involved.’
Those of us who visited were very impressed with how Ryerson and the city are working together to assist some of the most vulnerable and marginalised members of the community.