Monday, April 15, 2024

Drug-paraphernalia debris in Ottawa ‘a parent’s worst nightmare’

On their assorted routes in Ottawa, the Needle Hunters corps of paid employees collected 130,000 discarded needles between 2018 and 2022.

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Last weekend, a two-year-old girl was rushed to CHEO after she was found with an uncapped syringe in her mouth at Princess Margriet Park in the Kitchissippi municipal ward.

For Tanya Nash, a mother who lives in that municipal ward, the incident prompted bigger questions about helping those struggling with addiction.

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“Oh my god,” Nash said. “It’s a parent’s worst fear, right? I can’t imagine what those parents must be going through. I’m really just hoping this little one is OK.

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“That was my first instinct. My second instinct, or second worry, was how will the community respond to it.”

Tanya Nash Aya Jinha
Tanya Nash and her child, Aya Jinha. Photo by Jean Levac /Postmedia

Nash says she believes the amount of drug use and homelessness has climbed since 2018, and it’s particularly visible when her child, 12-year-old Aya Jinha, goes to after-school activities.

“When we walk to Aya’s dance class or improv class, we are literally walking around and sometimes stepping over people as they’re using (drugs) on the sidewalk,” Nash said.

In 2023, Kitchissippi ranked third among municipal wards in calls about needles to the City of Ottawa’s 311 line.

Kitchissippi Coun. Jeff Leiper says there aren’t many such complaints crossing his desk, though, adding it may indicate that, though some people make calls, not every ward resident is aware there’s a problem.

“Just being aware that there is a potential problem is one of the first steps to mitigating it,” Leiper said.

On a daily basis, Ottawa Public Health has five major methods of collecting needles and other drug paraphernalia, including drop boxes and the Needle Hunters, a corps of paid employees of Causeway Works Centre Ottawa working under a program managed by OPH.

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The city tracks how many needles are collected each year by OPH and by which source. Between 2018 and 2022, most needles were gathered in drop boxes: nearly 7.5 million overall. Needle Hunters, with 130,000 in that time frame, ranked fourth behind harm reduction program and partner agencies (3.96 million) and household hazardous waste (844,000).

Emily Morrison, a program manager with OPH’s environmental health team, confirmed that Princess Margriet Park was not on any of the Needle Hunters’ routes. She said OPH had not received any reports of needles in the park in the past year and that the park was “not an area with a history of more discarded needles.”

The closest needle drop boxes to Prince Margriet Park are at the Civic campus of The Ottawa Hospital and the Causeway Work Centre, both of them around a 15-minute walk from the park.

In response to last weekend’s incident, OPH said it would be “working with city partners to further assess the needs of this location,” but did not specify what steps it was considering.

Coun. Stéphanie Plante described Ottawa’s current approach as “playing whack-a-mole.” She represents Ward 12 Rideau-Vanier, the source of the second-highest number of calls about needles to 311 in 2023.

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“We have an injection site here, we have a shelter there, we have a soup kitchen here, and there’s no holistic response,” Plante said.

Safe-injection sites, policing, mental health and homelessness are just a few of the factors impacting drug use.

Leiper expressed optimism about the impact of the federal government’s recent $176-million funding announcement that will lead to the construction of 32,000 homes in Ottawa over the next decade.

“(That) news was actually very cheering. The federal government got out of the business of building deeply affordable housing back in the seventies, and we’re starting to see them come back in a big way. $176 million is a really huge investment in housing … It’s still not enough. It will take many such announcements to completely solve the problem, but it’s a start.”

This newspaper asked readers to share their experience with drug litter in public places. Adam Crupi, a resident in the Beacon Hill-Cyrville neighbourhood, said a drug user living in his condo complex had made common spaces dangerous for others in its 327 units. He said he had to warn adults and children playing outside about needles in the grass.

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“I can’t speak for all drug users,” Crupi said, “but the experience here is, when it’s the kind of drug that’s highly addictive and sought after, it creeps outside of their living space and it affects us in our common areas. They invite their friends over because they have a warm place to do their drugs. So, to them, it’s a safe injection site at our peril.”

Leiper acknowledged that smaller programs to address drug use, paraphernalia and addiction were helpful, but lacked sufficient resources.

“Fundamentally, I think a lot of it comes down to our society abandoning the most vulnerable,” he said.

Plante also cited housing as a barrier, noting her support for the non-profit housing provider Options Bytown, but she also stressed another method for combatting the drug-use problem: getting the message to kids early.

“We need to have a very serious prevention campaign,” Plante said. “We need to go into high schools and scare the s— out of kids. Take them to an injection site. Take them to an encampment. They have this slogan in some areas: One pill can kill … There is no coming back from that, and your life, and everybody’s life around you, will be ruined.”

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Plante compared that effort to campaigns about seatbelts, drinking and driving and smoking. However, she didn’t think the usual method of getting kids in the school gym “and lecturing them for an hour” would work.

Instead, she emphasized finding ways to connect with children where they are.

For Nash, this has to start with community.

“There’s a relationship between our mental well-being and our sense of belonging,” Nash said. “The more we feel that everyone belongs, the more we know that includes us.

“Let’s face it, the teen years can be pretty rough. If they feel that their community is a place for everyone, the kids are going to know that that sense of belonging belongs to them, too, no matter what’s going on.”

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