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Needle-exchange fears allayed in Fernwood

Expansion of harm-reduction services at a sobering centre at Cook and Pembroke doesn’t mean it’s being turned into a fixed needle exchange, Fernwood residents have been told.

Expansion of harm-reduction services at a sobering centre at Cook and Pembroke doesn’t mean it’s being turned into a fixed needle exchange, Fernwood residents have been told.

And residents should have no concerns that the centre will generate the same types of problems that plagued Cormorant Street when a fixed needle exchange operated there, said Cheryl Damstetter, Vancouver Island Health Authority’s acting executive director for mental health services.

“Information that’s out there is that somehow this a standalone, fixed site needle exchange. No it is not,” Damstetter told an information session at the Fernwood Community Association hall.

“We are not repeating what has happened previously in the community.”

More than 60 people crammed into the tiny hall to hear representatives from VIHA, the City of Victoria, Victoria Police Department, Victoria Cool Aid Society and AIDS Vancouver Island explain their plans for the sobering centre at 1125 Pembroke St.

Reaction from the crowd was mixed. Many neighbours worried about discarded needles in the area, especially at nearby George Jay Elementary School, and the unsavoury element a needle exchange might attract.

Resident Kate Wallace choked back tears as she spoke.

“I’m not a ‘Not In My Backyard’ person. I believe people need help and if it has to be in a community, it has to be in somebody’s community and I appreciate that. But I’m a little concerned for the safety of our kids,” she said.

“We’re finding needles in the schoolyard and it bothers everybody.”

Creole Carmichael said residents were given the same assurances, that any problems would be quickly dealt with, when the sobering centre opened. But she said problems with public urination, people passing out on boulevards and emergency vehicles at all hours, persist.

Others welcomed the expansion of harm-reduction activities.

“I am in favour of this new exchange site. In fact, I would be in favour of a safe injection site,” said Cam Miller, who suggested officials increase security in the neighbourhood for six months to ease concerns.

Acting Insp. Dave Bown, with the Victoria Police Department’s Focused Enforcement Team, doubted extra security will be needed.

“The people who will be coming there will be coming there to get help,” Bown said. “They’re not going to be hanging around in the neighbourhood and they’re not going to be breaking into your car and then going into the centre for help.”

Seb Bonet, of the Radical Health Alliance, handed out pamphlets prior to the start of the session, calling on VIHA to go much further and open a supervised consumption site. Another person offered to form a group of volunteers to regularly collect and dispose of needles.

Victoria’s last fixed needle exchange on Cormorant Street closed in 2008 after six years of operation. It was evicted by its landlord amid ongoing neighbourhood disturbances and problems with loitering, discarded needles, drug use and general disorder. Since then, it has proven difficult to find a replacement site.

In December, VIHA, the city, police and social service providers announced plans to expand and enhance harm-reduction activities at both the Pembroke Sobering and Assessment Centre and the Access Health Centre on Johnson Street.

The initiative was part of an effort to reach out to the 100 most vulnerable people in downtown Victoria.

Damstetter said the landscape has changed since Cormorant operated. Needle distribution is done at any number of health clinics and officials are not expecting a huge influx of new clients using Pembroke. Regular sweeps of the neighbourhood for needles will be conducted, she said.

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