Nanaimo's 'pop-up' safe-consumption site to remain despite safety concerns

By Dominic Abassi
December 29, 2016 - 5:42pm Updated: December 29, 2016 - 7:02pm

NANAIMO — The initiative by two Nanaimo councillors to open a safe-consumption drug site in the parking lot at City Hall has forced the city's senior staff to deal with safety concerns, but the site will not be removed.

Tracy Samra, Nanaimo's chief administrative officer, says after assessing the situation and consulting with several agencies, she made the call to shut down City Hall and the Service and Resource Centre on Thursday. Staff were either emailed and told not to come to work, or sent home. Samra says she was reacting to complaints and concerns raised by city staff.

"This is an unauthorized injection site. There's been no authorization from the city, I don't have authority to do so," said Samra. "That is why I called a council meeting. If council wants to engage in this then I need direction...otherwise the city is exposed to immense risks."

Samra called a special council meeting Thursday, however it was cancelled due to a lack of quorum. Only Councillors Diane Brennan, Gord Fuller and Jim Kipp were on hand.

The two city buildings will re-open Friday with security on site to escort any staff or residents that might have safety concerns, according to Samra.

She says at this point the city will not shut down the unsanctioned safe-consumption site. Samra says staff, RCMP and Fire Rescue will continue to monitor the situation, adding that since the city did not authorize the site, they are not assuming any liability, however it does put them in a very tenuous situation.

"If I'm ordered by either VIHA (Island Health) for medical reasons or health reasons, or the fire inspector finds it as a fire hazard and I'm instructed to do so, then bylaw will have to carry that out," said Samra.

Despite a comment from Coun. Fuller that city administration were informed late last week that the site would be getting setup on Monday, Samra says she didn't find out until she came to work on Wednesday.

"I knew that they wanted to do something but I didn't think that they would locate an injection site in the parking lot at City Hall."

Fuller, who along with Coun. Kipp and some volunteers spearheaded the creation of the site on Boxing Day, says if the city shuts the tent down, the situation will escalate.

"This has been a positive thing that the city is doing," said Fuller. "To escalate this into a protest, a major protest...to come in and support the two lonely councillors that have initiated this, we don't need to escalate."

Fuller says about 30 users have come through the site since it opened.

Kipp, who was clear he was speaking as a citizen and not acting on any council direction, says himself and Fuller decided something needed to be done to raise the awareness of the overdose issue and calls the choice of the City Hall parking lot a "bit of a protest."

"We have tried to move through the city process...we spend more time talking about the Downtown Business Association than we do about this crisis of fentanyl," said Kipp. "Kids are banging up in the alleys right around City Hall and this is no residential area."

Kipp says he would suggest the city would require an injunction to remove them from the property.

"I understand there's some concern about that (staff safety), but that bluff has been covered in needles for 10 years, it was never a concern to CUPE or the staff before."

CUPE Local 401 President Blaine Gurrie says the union did not request that the two city buildings be shut down.

In a written statement, Gurrie states the dignity and safety of those needing the service seems to have been overlooked.

"CUPE 401 applauds the efforts to bring a safe injection site to Nanaimo and serve the most vulnerable of our society. We cannot support the way in which this was brought to the City Hall parking lot as we have concerns about the health and safety of local residents, employees and the very users this was meant to support," stated Gurrie.

Coun. Brennan states via email that she is supportive of the pop-up site, although she notes a better location could be found.

"In the interim I am supportive because it is clear people are dying needlessly and I believe we have an obligation as individual citizens to address this crisis," states Brennan.

An Island Health official states via email that they are working with several agencies, including the city, to have a provincially sanctioned overdose prevention site up and running in Nanaimo within the first week of January.

Samra says she will once again try and get direction from council at their next scheduled meeting on Jan. 9.

"I'm hopeful that the politicians and VIHA can come together and provide some direction. This is a community crisis, but as the city manager I'm responsible for ensuring there is a safe work place," she said.

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