Chairman's Desk

All roads lead to this country’s dire need for affordable housing

It was as cold and brazen an act of violence as there is. To call it a heartbreaking and unspeakable tragedy is to descend into cliché and begin to normalize what happened.

The only appropriate response cannot be words but must be, for us as a city, to wake the hell up.

Early this summer, Karolina Huebner-Makurat, while walking in broad daylight, was murdered by a stray bullet from an exchange of gunfire after a fight between three men on Queen Street East near Carlaw Avenue.

This tragedy played out steps from the South Riverdale Community Health Centre. An employee of the centre was subsequently charged in connection with the shooting.

For many residents of this city, this tragedy was a clear sign that something was fundamentally wrong. And they are right. For people across Canada who live in close proximity to these sites, this event was part of an alarming pattern putting their children in harm’s way and their safety at risk, a pattern they’ve been sounding the alarm for years about to absolutely no avail.

Enough. It’s time for us to listen.

To be clear, supervised consumption sites save lives. They are integral to reducing the spread of infectious diseases. They provide users a safe space. They lower rates of death due to overdoses. And in a caring and compassionate society such as ours, they provide a crucial link to those among us that are not only neglected but forgotten.

But none of this means we can’t have a reasonable debate about how these sites operate, what fail-safes must be in place and, most importantly, where they belong.

When the fentanyl crisis first emerged in Canada, I wrote that stigma kills. I underlined that the absence of public sympathy for, and negative judgement of, fentanyl users bore a haunting resemblance to the atmosphere of fear, paranoia and callous neglect that characterized the early years of the HIV/AIDS epidemic. An atmosphere that carries deadly consequences.

Today, that stigma persists. And it undoubtedly applies to all those caught in the grip of a wider drug epidemic that has swept across our country.

But stigma cuts many different ways. Yes, we’ve seen dangerous beliefs that stigmatize drug users. But so too have we seen concerning attempts to stigmatize and stifle rational debate.

In this conversation, we must acknowledge that absolutely legitimate concerns raised by parents about needles strewn across sidewalks and open drug use near where their children play have been dismissed as mere expressions of privilege and blanketed by accusations of prejudice. Not only is this simply wrong, it is profoundly unhelpful in forming durable solutions to these problems that keep people safe.

The strongest proponents of supervised consumption sites love to emphasize that truly “community-centric” approaches are required to address this issue. I agree. But there can be no such thing if the voices of some community members are summarily dismissed.

And here is where the debate needs to go. At their best, these sites serve as points of referral to other aspects of the health-care system — a new front door — that help put users on the road to recovery. As Dr. Ahmed Bayoumi, a physician at St. Michael’s Hospital in Toronto, recently pointed out, they connect people with social and health services, along with stable employment and housing.

Ah, there it is again: housing. Almost unanimously, experts tell us drug users can’t recover without a stable roof over their heads.

So yes: all roads lead to Rome, and in this case, to this country’s dire need for affordable housing. A need our governments aren’t even coming close to meeting. Anyone who denies this is wilfully ignorant about the wide-scale, complex, nature of this problem. And, when it comes to trying to help and protect those living with drug addiction across this country, anything less than concrete action to address this need can only be described in one way: running in circles.

This article first appeared in the Toronto Star on September 4, 2023.

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