Beltline residents have their say about safe consumption sites

Having Their Say: A resident of Calgary’s Beltline neighbourhood fills out a survey in the Boyce Theatre to present their experiences to a safe consumption site review board on Sept. 11, 2019.  The  review panel is holding town hall meetings across the province. (Photo by Amanda McColl/The Press)

Emotions ran high as the supervised consumption site review board heard from residents of the city’s Beltline on Sept. 11 and 12.

On both evenings, at the Boyce Theatre in the BMO Centre, residents of the neighbourhoods near Supervised Consumption Services (SCS) in the Sheldon Chumir Health Centre, and Alpha House, voiced their experiences since SCS opened in 2018.

Greg Tufford, who manages an office building on 10th Avenue S.W., said that the SCS has caused a dramatic rise in crime, vandalism and harassment.

“I keep being told I need to have empathy for these people, but on my part, empathy has left the building.”

Several other residents and people who work in the area echoed this feeling.

Marie Chiem, owner of Leno Jewellery, spoke at length about the financial costs caused by her business’ proximity to Alpha House, which is at 15th Avenue and Macleod Trail S.W.

“We are losing clients because they don’t feel safe,” said Chiem.

She said that groups of the SCS’s clients loiter around her front door.

“It’s never just one or two people. It’s groups of four, five, or six.”

She also claimed the rent for her building has dropped, and as the building’s owner, she is losing $28,000 annually.

Some speakers did not share the view of these business owners, and said putting a price on a life-saving service was callous.

Ellen Charge, a paramedic in Calgary for 33 years, has spent the last 10 years in Calgary’s downtown core.

She most recently began working with a street medical team that works with the SCS.

“With the SCS, [individuals with addictions] are given a chance to be seen and respected as people,” she said in her submission to the review board.

“The amount of trauma that is behind what those addictions show is something that you’d never want for any of your children.”

Charge added that SCS offers the people using their service a way out of addiction.

Several other speakers questioned the lack of time and consideration given to the people most affected by the centre in a positive way: those who use the services of the SCS.

A Saved Seat: A t-shirt is left on an empty seat in the Boyce Theatre to show support of the safe consumption site in Calgary’s Beltline nieghbourhood. The safe consumption site town hall event heard the experiences of those who live and work near the site, on Sept. 11, 2019. (Photo by Amanda McColl/The Press)

Joan Farkas, a social worker in the Beltline, was struck by the extent of misery in the area when she started working there.

She said curiosity and respect are the only ways to break down the barriers in the neighbourhood.

“When we speak of all of these behaviors that make us all so very uncomfortable, we need to ask why are our fellow human beings living without dignity,” said Farkas.

“The people I interviewed know how people feel about them, and they know people would rather they just go away.”

The solution put forth most often was the city needs more sites, to lessen the impact on the Beltline communities, and the strain on the existing centre’s resources.

Calgary currently only has one safe consumption site.

Edmonton has four safe consumption sites, while Vancouver has six.

In a press conference on Wednesday, Premier Jason Kenny said that his government will fund 4,000 more recovery and treatment beds in Alberta, but also said harm reduction is not enough.

“We need to provide a way out of the trap of addiction that destroys far too many lives.”

The supervised consumption site review board consists of eight committee members including retired law enforcement officers, medical professionals and a parent of an addict who died due to a drug overdose.

Two members were absent from the event, but it was recorded for the committee to review later.

The committee is chaired by former Edmonton police chief Rod Knecht.

“We’ve heard every suggestion you can imagine,” said Knecht.

“It’s all valuable information and it will lead to better decision making.”

The report on what the committee finds was originally planned for submission in December, but, due to a larger than anticipated online response, that date may be pushed back, according to Knecht.

Due to the emotional nature of the issues around the consumption site, Alberta Health Services had members of the psychosocial response team on hand to help anyone who needed to talk after their presentation.