Some Fort St. John business owners are speaking out against plans to open a supervised drug consumption site downtown.
Harold Goodwin says he isn’t opposed to such services being offered to those with addictions in the city, just Northern Health's choice of location next to his telecommunications business on 100 Avenue, where it has operated for more than 35 years.
Goodwin, who neighbours the proposed site in the former H&R Block, says he’s concerned for the safety and welfare of local businesses and residents, including two day cares and an elementary school located within half a block.
“One of the highlights of our day at Deltek is to watch a train of a dozen small children in single file walking along the sidewalk in front of our business on their way to the library. It is heartwarming to live in a city where we can watch children walking downtown on main street safely,” wrote Goodwin in a recent letter to Alaska Highway News.
But, he says, “How are parents to feel when they are dropping off their little ones at day care on the same street where drug addicts are encouraged to inject drugs?”
"I would be terrified that my child may accidentally pick up a dirty needle along the street because this is truly what happens when you move a safe injection site to any location. How many parents and children as well as the day cares themselves will be affected?”
Northern Health has signed a five-year lease for the property at 10067 100th Avenue, which it plans to open before the end of this year as part of its response to the toxic opioid drug crisis in the province.
The building is currently home to a warming centre, first opened in 2022 with federal and provincial funding, to give homeless and other vulnerable people a place to go on winter days to stay warm, eat, wash up, or rest.
But Goodwin says the back of his property has become a hang out spot for loitering since the centre opened, and an increasing target of graffiti. Just three weeks ago, the fire department was called out to extinguish an early morning dumpster fire behind the two buildings, which could have proved devastating.
“Fortunately the fire department put it out,” he said. “When the steps have a group on them, staff are afraid to go to their vehicles.”
Goodwin fears public safety concerns downtown will get worse once the drug site opens and wants Northern Health to reconsider its proposal. He says it’s at odds with the city’s downtown revitalization plan and unfair for businesses and residents paying taxes to support that vision.
"Will we be forced to move our business or close them? Who will ever consider purchasing our building? No one. What will happen to our property value?” he said. "Why would any health organization consider the needs of a few over the livelihood and safety of the people who work and visit businesses on this block?”
Supervised service not new to city
Last year was the third deadliest for overdoses in Northeast B.C., with 26 deaths reported by the coroners service, including 12 in the Fort St. John area. That's up from just six fatal ODs seen in the region a decade ago in 2012, and the increase can be mostly attributed to the increasing presence of fentanyl in illegal street drugs.
But supervised consumption services aren't new to the city. A 2016 ministerial order by the province gave health authorities a mandate to open supervised consumption and overdose prevention sites. Northern Health has been operating one on the third floor of Pioneer Square downtown, where its mental health and substance use office is located.
“But it was accessed by very few individuals,” said chief medical health officer Dr. Jong Kim, noting concerns were raised by peer workers about client privacy with other services located in the same building. “It’s the concern that the individual might be identified that created barriers, leading to the small number accessing the services."
So the health authority began to look for a new location, first on 102 Avenue, but abandoned those plans last year when a lease couldn't be finalized.
It also launched a van to provide overdose prevention services directly on the streets near the First Nations Health Authority and Salvation Army shelter. The van has seen about 850 visits since launching in January 2022, according to Northern Health, though the van was destroyed by vandalism in October and subsequently replaced.
Dr. Kim says there is a need in Fort St. John for a more accessible, fixed location with more space to provide supports to drug users. The key idea of an overdose prevention site is to lower barriers to care, he said.
"We do have a significant toxic drug crisis in Fort St. John," Dr. Kim said. "And what kills people in this toxic drug crisis is not only the toxicity of the drug from contamination, another key factor is that people are using alone and without actually being connected to support and care."
Plans for the current location on 100 Avenue facility include separate injection and inhalation rooms, medical rooms, washrooms, a laundry, and shower. Space is also being allocated for the warming centre, and Dr. Kim noted the facility's close proximity to other community agencies, such as the Salvation Army.
“Part of that is being able to use the drug in a safe, supervised setting, but also being able to connect with the health services and social services that they need and that will keep them alive," he said. “It is a part of our core consideration that we want to provide wraparound services, so it's a part of the system of care and it's a part of putting people on a pathway to health.”
Dr. Kim says Northern Health is aware of the concerns of business, and working with Urban Matters to lead consultations. Neighbouring businesses were invited to two open houses about the facility, and there will be more public engagement in the coming weeks and months, he said.
“This is not the first time we are providing the services and this is our third location,” he said. “So there has been that community discussion and stakeholder consultation, with plenty taking place.”
Dr. Kim was optimistic that the facility's health care staff, as well as support from peer organizations and other community agencies, can work to address concerns as they are raised.
“For example, if there's any concern about discarded needles and so on… then we can follow up and provide support.”
It's planned to have the 100 Avenue facility open by winter, after the building has undergone significant renovations, the budget for which was not provided.
“Winter is usually quite significant time with toxic drug events,” said Dr. Kim. “So we want to be prepared for the next winter.”
With the ministerial order from the province, the City of Fort St. John says Northern Health can open a drug consumption site in the community without formal city approval. The provincial public safety ministry and coroners service says there was one reported death at an overdose prevention site in 2022.
“The ongoing opioid crisis in our community and throughout the province is a human tragedy that must be addressed,” Mayor Lilia Hansen said in a statement in December. “The City of Fort St. John supports and recognizes the need for wraparound harm reduction services in our community with consideration to the appropriate location and safety measures of these services."