Lethbridge’s only supervised drug-consumption site is shutting down at month’s end after the United Conservative government in mid-July pulled funding from the program amid a financial scandal.
Supervised drug-consumption, needle collection and outreach services will conclude effective Aug. 31, read a letter sent to neighbouring businesses on behalf of the AIDS Outreach Community Harm Reduction Education Support Society (ARCHES), the operator of the site.
Provincial funding to the organization was stripped by Premier Jason Kenney’s government following
and other “misappropriated” public money.
The audit alleges ARCHES “seriously mismanaged” taxpayer money, including using funds for parties, staff retreats, entertainment and gift cards.
ARCHES will vacate its downtown location by Sept. 30.
The Lethbridge supervised consumption site is the busiest in North America.
Between February 2018 and June 2020, it received almost half a million visits, responded to 3,590 medical emergencies and issued more than 10,700 referrals to external services.
It is unclear whether there will be another fixed supervised consumption site in Lethbridge following the closure of ARCHES. The organization said in a statement it is working with Alberta Health to transition affected clients and stakeholders.
“We will continue to work with Alberta Health on the wind down of these services and will support their plans for service transition,” said ARCHES.
“Currently, ARCHES does not have details on the future plans for supervised consumption or needle debris pick-up services within the city and have been told directly that if you would like further information on these new services, you are encouraged to reach out to Alberta Health.”
In the meantime, a mobile supervised consumption service will open Aug. 17 outside of the Lethbridge Shelter & Resource Centre, just blocks away from the ARCHES site.
It will be operated by Alberta Health Services (AHS).
The investigation into ARCHES has been referred to Lethbridge police. The service said Friday there was no update on the investigation.
Bev Muendel-Atherstone, who heads the Lethbridge chapter of
, said the closure could result in increased overdose deaths, more needle debris and reduced access to wraparound support for substance users.
“We are in a much worse situation than we were before,” said Muendel-Atherstone. “In this situation, it looks like the government really wanted to get rid of this, and has, but didn’t think through the solution. It’s only Band-Aid solutions.”
She said the mobile site will operate 17 hours per day, unlike ARCHES that operated around the clock. It will also disallow the inhalation of drugs, unlike ARCHES, and will have limited space, all of which can threaten the safety of clients who might then use without supervision.
She said the government had other options available, such as hiring a different operator or moving the site to a new location under different management.
And she thinks it is unfair the site was defunded while the investigation is ongoing.
“ARCHES has been deemed guilty without due process, without being charged or a trial,” said Muendel-Atherstone. “The whole thing to me
looking at how we treat our fellow citizens, our fellow humans
looks like they are not being treated with respect. This is a very mean-spirited position that the government has taken.”
Lethbridge Mayor Chris Spearman said changes to health services in the southern Alberta city are the responsibility of Alberta Health and AHS.
“We understand there are concerns from businesses and from community members around the changes related to supervised consumption, needle pick-up and outreach services in Lethbridge,” Spearman said in a statement Thursday.
“Alberta Health has declared their commitment to move toward a treatment and recovery model of care for our community, which we believe will address many social issues in our city.”
Kenney announced in July the province is investing $5 million to create a 50-bed recovery community in Lethbridge. During the same announcement, he made some of his
about harm reduction services.
“Handing somebody who’s deep in addiction a needle is not a continuum of care. I don’t even think it’s terribly compassionate to facilitate addiction rather than to offer a full spectrum of services for recovery and lifetime treatment,” Kenney said during the news conference.
Spearman said the city will announce any new services as they become aware.
Kassandra Kitz, press secretary for associate minister of mental health and addiction Jason Luan, said in a statement the mobile site is a “temporary solution” while the government works with the city and stakeholders to “ensure longer-term strategies are in place for people dealing with addiction.”
Kitz said needle collection will continue and services may be increased if there are concerns from the community.
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