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‘I need a house’: Belleville’s drug emergency lays bare toll of wider crisis

As snow accumulated on the streets around him, John Green wondered where he would find warmth for the night.

The 48-year-old and his partner were among those huddling this week outside a church in downtown Belleville, a community in southeastern Ontario that recently declared a state of emergency following a spike in overdoses.

The city’s mayor has called for provincial funding while highlighting the immense strain the local addiction, mental-health and homelessness crisis has placed on local services. Ontario’s premier had promised support. But what Green said he really needed was stable shelter.

“I need a house, a home,” said Green, expressing concern about what would happen to those gathered on the sidewalk outside the Bridge Street United Church once its drop-in program closed for the evening.

Green said he has been homeless for “nine winters,” following a divorce and a devastating back injury that left him unable to work. He said he has used drugs such as fentanyl and experienced overdoses, but his friends were able to intervene and save him.

Others haven’t been so lucky.

“I went to 19 funerals last year,” said Green, who added that he and others living on the streets were there because they had nowhere else to go.

“It’s cold … it’s lonely and it’s sad.”

Last week, Belleville’s emergency crews responded to 17 overdoses in the downtown core in just 24 hours. No related deaths were reported but officials said the spate of illicit drug poisonings was part of a worsening pattern – one that had to be addressed with help from other levels of government.

Evidence of some of the challenges faced by the city could be seen this week outside the Bridge Street church, which draws daily gatherings of those seeking food, warmth and other support.

Several individuals could be seen rubbing their bare hands together on a bitingly cold day, others huddled on makeshift chairs set against a fence. An older woman wrapped in blankets and sitting in the middle of the sidewalk shouted about her lack of housing.

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“Will I get it before I’m dead?” she yelled, seemingly in the direction of two women who were getting into a nearby car.

Next to her, a man puffed on a cigarette and grumbled to no one in particular.

On Sundays, members of a local volunteer group called Not Alone Team – Quinte pull up to the church and open their car trunks to distribute warm meals and sweet treats.

Volunteer Georgina Lee-Swift said she loves delivering food, mittens and socks to people, even if that’s a “drop in the bucket.”

“If there’s a lot of drops in the bucket, we can certainly make a ripple,” she said.

The founder of the group, 48-year-old Debbie Lee Pike, said it’s not unusual for her cellphone to ring at 2 a.m. with a request to help someone in need of food, money or temporary shelter.

“They are people, just like you and I, and a lot of them come from a very (traumatic) background,” said Pike, an elementary school teacher who runs the group of about 35 volunteers.

“Without kindness and help they’re not going to see a light at the end of the tunnel.”

Daily acts of kindness and outreach certainly help, advocates say, but the underlying issues contributing to overdoses, addictions and homelessness need to be addressed as well.

Outside the church, Melissa Lynch, who goes by the street name “Ma,” said drugs recently used by those she knows have been laced with dangerous ingredients.

“We are being picked off one by one, starting with the weakest, by a drug that has no name, but is being disguised and masked as fentanyl,” she said.

Public health officials in Belleville and other cities have warned that the illicit drug supply can be laced with xylazine, a tranquillizer used in veterinary medicine that can lower the heart rate, blood pressure and breathing.

Hastings Prince Edward Public Health, which serves Belleville, said a drug sample collected by police around the time of the overdoses seen in the city last week showed the presence of an opioid, xylazine and a benzodiazepine, which can cause heavy sedation.

Benzodiazepines are commonly mixed in with opioids sold on the streets, said Stephanie McFaul, manager of sexual health and harm reduction at Hastings Prince Edward Public Health.

“You can’t trust what you think you’re buying,” she said. “The trend of these drug poisonings is something that has been increasing over time.”

An online dashboard with data from Hastings Prince Edward Public Health shows that Hastings-Quinte Paramedic Services responded to 371 opioid-related calls in 2023.

There were 252 emergency department visits related to opioid poisonings in that time period and 50 suspected drug-related deaths.

There’s concern that many drug poisonings in the community go unreported when users deal with them privately, said McFaul.

Substance-abuse emergencies can happen anywhere, including to people who have jobs, homes and supportive families, experts said.

“It’s really a cross-section of humanity … People from every socio-economic background enroll in opiate agonist treatment,” said Kate Johnston, who manages Ontario clinics run by Canadian Addiction Treatment Centres, including one in Belleville offering low-barrier addiction treatment services covered by the Ontario Health Insurance Plan.

“If you think about the drivers of opiate use disorder or addiction, it could be a history of trauma, mental health and there are so many contributors to chronic pain. So no one is exempt from those experiences.”

Treatment goals are different for each patient, Johnston said, but they’re not abstinence-based. And when patients are on a stable, therapeutic dose of addiction medications, overdoses can be prevented, she said.

Despite the availability of addiction treatments and programs that provide essentials such as opioid overdose-reversing medication naloxone and safe-injection supplies, experts and outreach volunteers said real progress will be difficult unless the local – and countrywide – housing crisis is addressed.

The mayor has said the city of 55,000 residents has a homeless population of about 200, although that is likely an underestimation.

Pike, who leads the local volunteer group, said she doesn’t think the mayor’s recent request for provincial funding to establish a new health and social services hub and a detox centre in the community is enough.

“The reality is … until (people) are housed, sending them to detox isn’t gonna fix the problem,” she said. “Because they’re just sending them back onto a street where they’re just going to find the same supply.”

— With files from Chris Young


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