Last updated: October 19, 2011 3:48 pm
Budget cuts force Montreal clinic to cut needle exchange program
Hundreds potentially affected, though Quebec plans to open new safe injection sites
MONTREAL (CUP) — Head and Hands, a clinic and social services organization for Montreal youth, has scrapped its Streetwork needle exchange program in Notre-Dame-de-Grace (NDG), potentially leaving hundreds of users in the west end without clean needles and other forms of support.
Juniper Belshaw, fundraising and development co-ordinator, said that the organization was told by Montreal's directeur de santé publique last August that the $75,000 required to fund the two programs had been slashed from their budget. Other organizations also lost their funding in the round of budget cuts, according to Belshaw.
A spokesperson from public health confirmed the cuts, saying they were ultimately made for budget reasons, though the results are unfortunate.
By Aug. 19, Streetwork closed down, leaving the two workers out of a job and potentially hundreds of people without support, which includes referrals to counselling and other services.
“I like to think of these street workers as these harm reduction fairies,” said Belshaw, who said having to let them go was "brutal."
“At Heads and Hands, we work with a harm reduction approach, which has a lot to do with meeting people where they're at … If someone is having sex, we want to talk about how to have safer sex. If someone's using drugs, we want to say, 'Hey, here's some information about how to smoke more safely, how to inject more safely.'”
The workers distributed 360 needles, 64 crack pipes and over 6,700 condoms between March and July of this year, and touched base with nearly 700 new contacts.
"It's easy in our society to forget about people in high-risk situations. I think that's why this kind of work is so important," said Belshaw. "We ran the only clean needle exchange in NDG. We're the only folks who gave out clean crack inhalation kits, for instance. Those drugs are being used in NDG."
Ironically, Head and Hands went public with their news just over a week after the province announced a pilot project that will launch two safe injection sites. Health Minister Yves Bolduc said he had consulted and will work with needle exchange services Cactus and Pointe de repère to set up safe injection sites in Montreal and elsewhere in Quebec.
Both needle exchange programs and safe injection sites are based on the “harm reduction” model, which attempts to reduce the harmful risks of drug consumption without requiring users to abstain. At needle exchange programs like those provided at Head and Hands, street workers are mobile, visiting clients at their apartments, metros, parks and on the street. Conversely, safe injection sites are stationary. There, users can safely shoot up and receive medical attention and other resources without the fear of being arrested for violating drug laws.
Groups have been anticipating the announcement of more safe injection sites across the country since Sept. 30, when the Supreme Court of Canada granted an exemption to allow InSite, a Vancouver safe injection site, to remain open in spite of federal drug laws. The ruling has left open the possibility for safe injection sites to pop up in the rest of the country.
Dr. Julie Bruneau, a drug addiction researcher at Centre hospitalier de l'Université de Montréal, was one of those who welcomed the announcement of the sites.
“We need an array of services for those who are hard to reach. This one of the many services that can help with that,” she said.
A survey a few years ago estimated that the number of drug users on Montreal island is between 10,000 and 15,000 people. But, said Bruneau, each city is different when it comes to drug use patterns. Montreal, unlike Vancouver, does not have a concentrated group of drug users in one place. It may be that there will be more than one safe injection site in Montreal, potentially helping the users who received support from Streetwork out in the western part of the island, she suggested.
While Belshaw is happy to hear about the announcement for safe injection sites in Montreal, she hopes to begin another needle exchange program at Head and Hands, this time by seeking out diverse sources of funding instead of relying on one government source. There has almost always been a form of the service in the 40 years that Head and Hands has been operating, she said.
“I think what we're really focusing on right now is the impact this has on our clients, and the way that we can bring this service back.”