Listen to Drug Users and Advocates, the CERB is Harm Reduction

Reckless. This is how Raina Gagnon, an addictions counsellor in Ottawa representing Centretown Pharmacy, described the distribution of emergency funds to people who use drugs in an opinion piece last week.

Gagnon argues that by accessing the Canada Emergency Response Benefit – a temporary income support of $500 a week during the COVID-19 pandemic – people who use drugs are sabotaging their recovery. Her proof? Increased demand for harm reduction supplies and a higher number of overdoses, some of which have been fatal. 

Gagnon’s concern for drug users is appreciated but her article offers correlation, not causation. Drug users are not struggling and dying because they are receiving additional financial support. 

We are in the midst of a global pandemic, a housing and homelessness crisis, and an overdose emergency in Ottawa. COVID-19 forced the closure of many resources across the city (like day programs and drop-in centres), while others function at reduced capacity. Physical distancing guidelines, enforced by bylaw, have deepened the isolation already experienced by many drug users. A lack of affordable and dignified housing means many users live in dangerous conditions. 

This lack of support combined with the fear of contracting COVID-19 and a general sense of uncertainty is more than enough to increase the slips and relapses that are part of the recovery process. 

To clarify this further, Overdose Prevention Ottawa has provided a line-by-line response to Gagnon’s opinion editorial. Our response is in red text. 

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“In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Government of Canada has tried to cushion the blow of financial instability during these times. But in the case of those who receive social assistance, it’s a different story.

For the majority of my patients, the introduction of the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) — which provides $2,000 a month for up to four months for people who lose their income as a result of the pandemic — has been reckless at best.”

Here, it is apparent that the author feels like giving social assistance and financial support to people who use drugs is “reckless”. But what is the alternative? Allow people who use drugs to remain in destitute poverty during a pandemic? This does not feel like a better alternative. 

“For some, it’s been deadly.”

Actually, what is deadly is a toxic supply of drugs and an unwillingness for the federal government to regulate them and respect the human rights of people who use drugs. 

“While it is excellent people are using clean supplies, it is a reflection of the increase in use. I have witnessed otherwise stable patients hit a hard stop in their recovery; some have been admitted to the hospital for bacterial infections associated with an increase in IV drug use. Some have been much less fortunate.” 

“The unusual influx of money into the hands of those who are not habituated to it has resulted in a much higher use of drugs, and a substantial increase in drug overdoses and related deaths. Drug culture is surging, and as a result, supply is insufficient to meet demand. Paired with the introduction of “orange” fentanyl into the Ottawa area, which is changing the game yet again from the “purple days,” folks are hard-pressed to stand a chance.”

Harm-reduction is not limited to the provision of sterile supplies. It is a framework and philosophy that guides the way all services should be delivered. Harm reduction does not have an expectation of sobriety or abstinence, but rather respects individual human rights and autonomy to make choices about one’s own life and body. To reduce it down to only the distribution of sterile supplies is a disservice to the significant work that has been done by people who use drugs and activists for over 30 years. 

Until recently, harm reduction work was performed only by people who use drugs. Users had no gear, no naloxone, no access to safe consumption sites and were often stigmatized by medical professionals. No one was paid for this work, people did it to survive and became harm reduction experts as a result.

 When drug consumption sites opened, it was drug users who taught nurses the signs of an overdose. It was drug users who offered compassionate, non-judgmental support to their peers. It was drug users who educated service providers on the day-to-day realities of living with illnesses like Hepatitis C. It is drug users who continue to perform live-saving work as they grieve loved ones lost to the ongoing overdose emergency.

 The harm reduction work we see in communities now is the result of people with lived experience sharing their expertise to save lives.  

What would have been useful here is to actually call for a safe supply of drugs, something that the harm reduction community has been advocating for. The statement above infantilizes people who use drugs and makes it seem like they cannot be trusted with money. Again, this is very stigmatizing. The author could have also called for an increase in funding to provide longer hours at safe consumption services in Ottawa, as we know their capacities have been greatly reduced during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“The simplicity of the universal CERB application process, though well-intended, is flawed in that it is relatively easy to receive money which one is not eligible for through a series of simple questions. It has failed to take into account some of this country’s most vulnerable sectors, and as a result, we will be forced to deal with the aftermath of this situation for years to come.”

Is the author suggesting here that people who are marginalized, living in legislated poverty already, and at the intersection of various public health crises, should not be awarded money because they cannot be trusted? The author could have looked at why these communities are marginalized and made vulnerable in the first place and issued a call for upstream measures. People living in absolute poverty who receive some financial reprieve will not be what causes a devastating aftermath. What will result in a devastating aftermath will be allowing people to remain unhoused, forced to use an unregulated supply of unknown potency in the midst of a global pandemic, and to restrict the services and social assistance provided to them. 

“I like to say, “there are no problems, only solutions.” To that effect, I ask you to consider that those who are suffering from substance abuse disorders, including our sons, daughters, mothers, fathers, and friends, are worthy of compassion during this time when our general lack of foresight has exacerbated the issue with which they struggle. We are one people. It is in our humanity to demand no one gets left behind.”

Here, the author is literally asking for people to not be left behind, but in the above paragraphs has specifically requested the federal government to not provide them with money. So which is it?  What exactly are the solutions to be provided here? Do they want people to remain in absolute poverty in the hopes that the lack of financial resources will somehow push them to recovery and abstinence? This is a misguided, naive belief that is not based in reality or in evidence.  

——

Harm reduction principles centre drug users as the experts of their own well-being. Harm reduction affirms users as the primary agents of reducing the harms of their drug use, and seeks to create spaces and relationships where users can support and empower each other. Harm reduction is a response to social and economic harms that make people more vulnerable, such as poverty and homelessness. Therefore, the last thing a harm reduction worker should do is advocate for the revocation of financial support from people who use drugs.

Gagnon’s article struck a chord with the harm reduction community in Ottawa. “We are struggling, we’re dying, and the second we get some relief they think we don’t deserve it.” These words from a drug user demonstrate the harm caused by Gagnon’s call to ‘limit accessibility’ to the CERB – a patronizing solution that leaves people with even fewer resources.

The CERB is not ‘deadly’ for people who use drugs. In fact, a Universal Basic Income is a harm reduction strategy.

Gagnon and others should remember that getting paid to work alongside drug users is a privilege and comes with responsibilities to the movement, and the experts, that made these roles possible.

Nothing about us without us. 

TENT CITY BULLDOZED, BELONGINGS DESTROYED, BY THE NATIONAL CAPITAL COMMISSION

OTTAWA – On December 10th, International Human Rights day, residents of Tent City and their supporters stood by as their tents and belongings were bulldozed by employees of the National Capital Commission under the supervision of the Ottawa Police Service.

On Monday, some residents of Tent City were provided with temporary accommodations – a motel room – in Vanier so they could shower and sleep somewhere warm. Residents accepted this offer with the understanding they had 48-hours to come back to the site near Bayview Station to collect their belongings, which included items the community generously donated to support their survival. Unfortunately, residents woke up 7am Tuesday morning to news that the NCC and the Ottawa Police were already at the site, dismantling their tents. 

“This is what the criminalization of poverty looks like,” says Leila Attar, advocate and member of Overdose Prevention Ottawa. “[The city has] no resources to actually support people who are homeless, but they have resources to come in, kick them off, forcibly remove them” said Attar as she shared distressing images of personal belongings being bulldozed and tossed into large bins. 

The forced eviction of Tent City is a violation of international human rights and the displacement of residents from their community puts them at serious risk. Amid all the chaos yesterday, many residents missed long-awaited and life-saving medical appointments because of this needless and preventable distress. They will now likely miss out on more appointments and supports as their temporary “housing” is located outside of their community, far away from medical and social resources. This isolation exacerbates their already harsh experiences of chronic homelessness. 

When residents of Tent City were informed on Sunday, December 8th that they would be forcibly evicted by the NCC, they quickly organized and compiled a list of demands. These demands include things like “being treated at all times with dignity and respect by city officials, NCC officials, police officers, and any other government representatives.” They also requested that emergency shelter be provided “in the neighbourhood or as proximate to the neighbourhood as possible.” Most importantly, residents wanted to be consulted directly by the City of Ottawa and NCC officials on any decisions made about their living situation. 

Unfortunately, this list of demands was ignored and the City of Ottawa, the National Capital Commission, and the Ottawa Police chose to distinguish themselves as champions of the heartless on a day when we were meant to recognize the importance of human rights.

“My heart aches for my neighbours,” said Samantha McAleese – supporter and advocate – on Twitter yesterday. “This dehumanizing and cruel display… on International Human Rights Day is a new low for Ottawa.” 

Today, December 11th, Councillor Catherine McKenney will bring a notice of motion to City Council to declare housing and homelessness an emergency in Ottawa. This motion, and all actions that stem from it, must keep the people experiencing homelessness at the forefront. The demands made by residents of Tent City echo the needs and concerns of others living outside, living in shelters, and experiencing homelessness and housing insecurity in its many forms. Overdose Prevention Ottawa, residents of Tent City, and other neighbours and advocates are requesting to sit down with City officials to share their recent experiences and discuss the best way forward. 

STATEMENT FROM TENT CITY: Our Demands and calling for our Human Rights to be Respected

Ottawa- On Sunday, December 8th at about 5:30 PM, we were informed through a news story that we will be forcibly evicted from where we are living.  Shortly after, a notice, issued by the NCC, was found posted to a tree just outside tent city. It states “This notice means that all persons who are camping must stop doing so, and that all tents or unauthorized structures must be removed”.  It also embellishes and lies about the reality of our homeless status and the progress in our housing situation.

This attempt to push us further into insecure homelessness, is contrary to the governments (city and NCC) obligations under international human rights law.

As rights holders, not beneficiaries of charity, we the residents of Tent City residents demand the following:

1. We be provided with a focal point at the City of Ottawa and within the NCC with whom we can communicate and  meet on a regular basis. We request that all communication is provided in written notice. 

2. We be treated at all times with dignity and respect by city officials, NCC officials, police officers and any other government representatives. 

3. We require emergency shelter in motels in the neighbourhood or as proximate to the neighbourhood as possible.

4. If we have to stay at Tent City, while we find housing, we demand better and livable conditions. Our right to safety is paramount and must be upheld. We demand electricity, toilets, non flammable heaters, water, tents, waste management services, and blankets. We have not been provided with this to date and this is contrary to our entitlements under international human rights. 

5. Stop threatening evictions and our right to exist in public space. 

6. Immediately make use of the many empty housing units available in the city to address desperate housing needs. 

7. Reduce barriers on potential tenants and the requirements needed for them to successfully obtain housing. 

8. Implement policy to ensure landlords that operate multiple properties and rental units designate a % of said units to be used for not for profit housing. 

9. Increase penalties for landlords abusing their power and treating tenants unfairly. 

10. Increase social assistance to match rent market. 

11. Accelerate the development of low-income housing units that are currently underway. (For example: Gladstone + Booth + Baycrest.)  

12. Refuse the sale of low-income housing units to private owners. 

13.  Implement oversight committee to regulate landlords to stop renovictions from happening. 

14. That the City of Ottawa formerly acknowledge the right to housing.

Cards from a class of grade 5 students.

These demands are not radical. These are modest demands to preserve human life and our right to not be pushed further into the periphery of being invisible. Housing is a human right.

On Friday, one of our sisters living at tent city was hospitalized due to serious medical conditions. Yesterday, we received the news that a friend of ours in the neighbourhood had died.  Today, children from a class of grade 5 students met with us to present us with Christmas cards and express their hope for our cause and that they support us.

In the midst of all this, the NCC was plotting to post an eviction notice threatening our very existence, combined with a series of embellishments and lies about our homeless status.  This is unacceptable.

We are requesting our supporters join us, at 7am at Tent City, to stop the threat of eviction and stand in solidarity with their homeless brothers and sisters.

NCC Threatening Eviction AGAIN!!

AGAIN, residents of Tent City are facing eviction tomorrow. How do you evict someone who is homeless and living outside already? The truth is, they may be arrested for being homeless tomorrow and have all of their belongings thrown out.

Show up at Tent City (just north of the Bayview LRT stop) tomorrow at 7am to support residents.

Forced evictions are illegal! Every level of government is failing these members of the community.

Rally/ Press Conference to Defend Tent City

STATEMENT FROM TENT CITY: Rally/Press Conference to Defend Tent City

OTTAWA – We, the residents of Tent City, call on all supporters to join us at Tent City at 10am Monday, December 2nd to defend our homes. We will be listing our demands for the City of Ottawa and NCC who have stated they will be forcibly evicting Tent City at 10am. 

Please join us as we fight for our right to housing and to exist in public space, and as we call attention to the national housing crisis being experienced by communities across Canada. We stand in solidarity with tent cities enduring ongoing displacement, like Sanctuary Tent City in Surrey, BC.

We are holding this rally/press conference to assert our human rights to stay in the encampment and to not be evicted without adequate alternative short and long-term accommodation as agreed upon by the residents.

The City of Ottawa and the NCC have human rights obligations that are not being met.  We are calling on the City of Ottawa and the NCC to implement their human rights obligations – to provide adequate emergency accommodation and long-term housing options. 

Residents of tent city and their supporters, Leilani Farha, United Nations Special Rapporteur on the right to housing, Alex Neve, Secretary-General of Amnesty International (English Canada), and Prof. David Wiseman of the Housing Justice Project (UOttawa Law), will be in attendance.

We stand in solidarity with all our homeless brothers and sisters sleeping rough and homeless tonight.

#HousingIsARight #HomesNotHate #HousingIsHarmReduction #CommunityNotCriminalization

Tent City Under Attack

STATEMENT FROM TENT CITY:  City moving to displace encampment!

OTTAWA-  at 4PM Friday, November 29th, we received news that in less than 72 hours we must vacate tent city.  We must move our homes by 10am on Monday, December 2nd, or a trespass order will be enforced. If we are not gone, they will dismantle our homes.

Last week, on Sunday, November 24th, there was a fire at tent city. It was a targeted arson. The fire was intentionally and purposefully started by someone who was not a resident and wanted to displace those of us who reside here. The Nationafirel Capital Commission and the City of Ottawa are now saying that because of this fire we are no longer allowed to make this place our home. They are using this attack to force us to disperse and displace us into the dangers of isolation. We have nowhere else to go.

In the ongoing crisis of housing in our city, we found a home; a home that was supported by those in the community who have one, a home that was supported by community organizations, a home that we called home while we work to gain housing.

Imagine having your home burnt and the City of Ottawa saying you can’t rebuild it. One of our community members who lost their tent to the fire was collecting presents for their family for Christmas. All of these belongings and the shelter they had constructed are now gone. This loss has rattled our sense of belonging.

The National Capital Commission claims to be “building strong relationships with people” as part of its mandate. The City of Ottawa administers housing related supports. Instead of public-health informed support and advocacy, both parties are now insisting that tent city residents cannot rebuild or stay.

There is an irony, that the City and the NCC are forcibly removing us from this community based on claims of “safety.” And yet, the question resounds, remove us to then go where? Relocate us to where? Exist where? Jim Watson, where do you want us to exist?

We know that this is not really about the fire. We know that yet again, the City of Ottawa is choosing the criminalization of poverty and homelessness over community-based supports. This approach is a program of disenfranchisement that our government implicitly and explicitly wages upon us every day. We have been denied the streets, we have been denied a common space to exist, and yet when we carve one out, it is burnt.

We are grateful to so many in the community whose overwhelming generosity has been a rallying point in knowing that this isn’t just about us, but about all of our brothers and sisters that are living with nowhere to lay their heads peacefully at night.

While different levels of government fight over who has to pay, we are burnt, occupied, and displaced.

Stay tuned to updates as the weekend evolves & how you can help.  To the many of you who support us, thank you for your ongoing support.

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Request from Residents of Tent City

People struggling with homelessness in Ottawa are requesting your support. See below a statement from residents of Tent City and a list of supplies they need.

In solidarity,

OPO

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As many of you know, a number of us have been struggling with homelessness in the past year. This precarious housing situation is rooted in increasing rents, discrimination, low vacancy rates, several mass evictions that recently occurred in the neighbourhood, and a rooming house fire that occurred this late spring.

Local health and social services are doing what they can to support us to secure housing however this is a bleak time and a process fraught with multiple barriers, especially in lieu of the current housing crisis.

Facing this, some of us have organized ourselves in a tent city, a gathering place for safety from violence, overdose, harassment and the other dangers facing us when we are homeless. We are active members of the community and have provided many hours of volunteer labour and community service to the community and the neighbourhood we live in.

As residents of tent city, we are currently in need of your support to increase our daily wellbeing and living situation, and require essential food, water, equipment and supplies.

The following are some items that could help.

·     Fire extinguishers

·     Water bottles

·     Water Keg

·     Kerosene Oil (#1 Canadian Tire)

·     Blankets

·     Hygiene supplies

·     Utensils, paper plates and cups

·     Jugs (Juice/Water)

·     Zip Ties

·     Tents

·     Bike Rack

·      BBQ

·     Winterized Sleeping Bags (-30)

·     Food

·     Hot water containers

·     Coffee/Tea

·     Ice Tea/Orange Tang

·     Batteries (AA, AAA, C)

·     Dry Firewood

·     40ft x 40ft tarp

·     Camping Chairs

·     Bundles of Hay

·     Inflatable Mats/Beds

·     Oil Lamps

·     First Aid Kits

Thank you in advance for your contributions. The donated supplies will be greatly appreciated. Donations can be dropped off with staff at St. Luke’s Table, Monday – Friday 9am-2pm. Please label items “Tent City”.

Thank you again for your time and consideration.

 

Ask Ann: An Evening of Social Justice and Community Building

In 2018, we hosted Ann Livingston, co-founder of VANDU and the Overdose Prevention Society, in Ottawa to learn from her experience organizing with people who use drugs. Watch here to learn from Livingston’s experience working towards drug user liberation, which includes a framework for addressing community needs, listening to local knowledge, and traditions for remembering those we have lost.

 

Thank you Ann, for your generosity, love, and tenacity in this fight for social justice.

 

Thanks also to Bobby J for opening the event by acknowledging our presence and work on unceded and unsurrendered Algonquin territory, and Leila for hosting the interview.

Invest in communities! Divest from police!

On February 25, 2019, community organizations, including the Criminalization and Punishment Education Project, Sanctuary City Network, and Overdose Prevention Ottawa, presented to the Ottawa Police Services Board their concerns with the proposed increase budget. Herein is our presentation:

OPO argued that as a City, we need to divest from the police and start investing in communities, through health and social services, education, food programs, and rent-geared-to-income housing. An increase in the police budget means that we are divesting from our communities and choosing violence and exclusion instead of community support. I urge the police services board to reject the requested increase in the budget and instead support a decrease in funding for Ottawa Police Services.

We have three main concerns regarding the increase in the police budget, which are also areas where funding could be redirected to reduce the need for police. The first is the relationship between Ottawa police and folks accessing harm reduction services, the second is the number of police attending calls for service, and the last is the number of police on the sunshine list.  

At OPO, we repeatedly heard stories of police harassing people accessing harm reduction. These harassing tactics include following people as they walk through the city to access services, breaking drug using equipment that health and social services distribute, mocking people who exert their rights and ask the police why they are being stopped, and purposefully parking cruisers outside of services to deter attendance. These tactics create a barrier for accessing services and people will die as a result of them. In Vancouver, Pivot Legal Society’s Project Inclusion found very similar practices were being used to deter people from accessing harm reduction services. Their research found that policing practices, directly and indirectly, lead to negative health outcomes, opioid-related harms, and safety issues for their study participants. Police actively disrupt harm reduction activities and basic survival activities in ways that undermine the health and safety of residents. In the face of the ongoing overdose emergency, we need to ensure that the City is doing everything possible to prevent death, and this includes putting an end to these common police practices.

Another common tactic by Ottawa police is to have multiple officers attend calls for service. When people see multiple cruisers at a situation, they assume that there is a serious incident underway. However, this tactic has been used for something as mild as public drinking. If I were on the Board and asked to approve an increase in the budget, I would ask to see the data on how many police attend calls for service, and how many police attend each different type of call for service. OPS’ practice of over attendance is a means to inflate the need for police and justify more funding, and it takes away from other community services that can prevent interactions with police. In 2018, the budget for the Ottawa Police Services represented 9.5% of Ottawa’s total expenditures while the Toronto Police Services represented 8.8% of Toronto’s total expenditures. Toronto is the largest city in Canada and the fourth largest in North America. Ottawa may be a growing city, but our population is nowhere near the size of Toronto’s. If we were spending a higher percentage of our expenditures in 2018 on policing, why does the police service need more funding this year?

Related to my questions about police over attendance, is overtime pay and the number of Ottawa police on the sunshine list. The sunshine list every year publishes the names of people paid through public funds that make over $100,000 per year. In 2017, there were 3,363 employees of OPS on the sunshine list. In 2018, that number more than doubled to 7,474 employees of the Ottawa Police being paid over $100,000. Are police officers being paid this rate as their base pay or is this a result of overtime? If it is a result of overtime, it would be important to know how officers are incentivized to do overtime within the police services culture. What is the connection between police over attendance at calls for service and overtime pay?

Police undermine safety for poor and working class, drug using, racialized, and queer and trans residents. It is of the utmost importance for public funds to be spent responsibly and in keeping with evidence on how to create a safe community for everyone. OPS’s budget should be decreased and funds should be allocated towards community initiatives and social services that are identified through community-based processes, have transparent budgets, are accountable to the community, and have shown they can respond and support our well-being and safety.

Increasing the police budget legitimizes the violent tactics used in Ottawa and inflates the need for surveillance, security and regulatory tactics that target certain communities and benefit others. Investing in police means we are divesting from our communities. To the City Councillors on the Board, you have a responsibility as administrators of the public purse to listen to residents and also to listen to evidence. A multitude of evidence demonstrates that police are an inappropriate response to social issues, and increase harm through marginalization and the criminalization inherent in the policing model and criminal justice system.

 We need a city budget that supports community, not criminalization. As the capital city, Ottawa should be a leader in innovative, evidence-based solutions to social issues without falling into the global current that encourages fear of crime, the myth of escalating danger, and mistrust of our neighbours.

Overdose prevention sites are needed in Ontario now!

Ontario is facing the largest and longest public health emergency in recent memory. 1263 people died from an overdose in Ontario last year – more than three people a day. This is an increase of 45% over the 867 people who died unnecessarily in 2016. People who use drugs, community members, and front-line health care workers are struggling to respond to the overdose epidemic without adequate government support.

In the midst of this crisis, the Ontario PC government has paused all funding for new overdose prevention sites and halted the tentative opening of three sites across the province. These sites would provide easy-to-access, life-saving services such as supervised injection, harm reduction supplies, and the overdose-reversing drug Naloxone.

We cannot afford to delay our response to this public health emergency any longer.

Send a message to the Chief Medical Officer of Health to take action for overdose prevention in Ontario now!