Pop up sites encourage safe administration of drugs without risk of overdose

The drug overdose crisis in Ottawa has spiked over the last few months, particularly in the areas surrounding the University of Ottawa in Sandy Hill and the ByWard Market.

“We know four people who have overdosed and died in the last week in this neighbourhood alone,” says Lisa Wright, one of the organizers of Overdose Prevention Ottawa.

To combat these overdoses, Wright and her team at Overdose Prevention Ottawa have been operating a “pop-up overdose prevention site” everyday from 6-9 p.m. for over 40 days now. The site is located on the corner lot of Cumberland and St. Patrick St., which is currently the area with the highest rates of drug overdose in Ottawa.

The community centre which houses the pop up site is located on what used to be a playground for a primary school, and according to Wright, the city has taken numerous measures to try and make the area less accessible and appealing to drug users.

The site also has the safety of users in mind, and Wright says that one feature that does this is that it  allows users to inject more than once per sitting. Wright refers to this as a “taste,” where users can safely assess what they are taking in, and decide how to proceed in order to prevent an accidental overdose.

The site also features an inhalation station, something that Wright says is rare because inhalation is an issue that is often overlooked.

When asked if the services help people transition away from taking drugs, Wright clarified that the main practice of harm reduction is to “meet people where they are at.”

“If where they are at today is using (drugs,) then we try to make that as safe as possible for them. And if where they are at is detoxification, then we can try to make those referral calls for them. But it is not up to us to push them either way,” said Wright.

Yafa Jarrar, a third-year common law student at the U of O, is a volunteer at the site.

“There is a crisis in Canada,” said Jarrar. “More importantly, the City of Ottawa has seen a lot of deaths due to Fentanyl. We are here as volunteers to prevent any deaths happening from overdose.”

Many of the volunteers are experienced in harm reduction, social work, or past experience with drugs themselves.

Both Wright and Jarrar have said that for the most part, the community has reacted to the site in a positive way. According to Wright, the organization delivered 600 signed letters of support from members of the community to city councilor Mathieu Fleury last week.

However, the site has seen some backlash. For example, a protester dumped manure on the site on the morning of Thursday Oct. 5 in effort to try and prevent the site from setting up on the lot.

“If you oppose this, you are basically saying ‘yes, I am okay with letting people die,’” says Jarrar.

“What we’re doing here is not enough and part of why we can’t do more is because of the backlash in the community,” says Wright. Wright and the other volunteers hope to get more support and help from other organizations in order to set up a more permanent site indoors before winter arrives.