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Belleville mayor’s commitment to mental health and addictions hub has advocates calling for Windsor to follow suit

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Despite the mayor of Belleville, Ont. committing to open a hub for mental health and addictions services without financial assistance from the province, harm reduction advocates in Windsor are not confident it will have a ripple effect on operations at SafePoint — which went on pause at the start of this year.

This week, Belleville Mayor Neil Ellis said his ask for $2 million from the province to support a 24/7 wraparound services centre had gone unanswered. Instead, Ellis said he will ask fellow councillors to set aside $2 million in the city's next operating budget, funded by taxpayers, to offset the cost.

A lack of provincial funding is what forced the Windsor-Essex County Health Unit (WECHU) to close the doors of SafePoint — Windsor's only safe consumption and treatment services (CTS) site — at the end of last year.

After federal approval allowed SafePoint to open in April 2023, provincial funding which would have sustained its operations for the foreseeable future never came through.

That's because in July 2023, the province paused funding decisions for all pending CTS applications after a woman was fatally shot outside a similar site in Toronto.

Despite the province attributing the pause to safety concerns, new research now suggests Toronto's CTS sites drastically reduce deaths in the neighborhoods they are located.

A study, published this month in The Lancet, found fatal overdoses dropped by 67 per cent within 500 metres of the sites after they opened.

Researchers added neighborhoods surrounding CTS sites saw a significant reduction in overdose mortality rates, whereas areas in the city without them did not.

"I would hope that Windsor makes a similar shift [as Belleville's mayor] in their thinking toward a consumption and treatment service," said Pozitive Pathways Executive Director Michael Brennan, adding Windsor's political leadership needs the "political appetite and will" to make it happen.

"If other aspects of public health and community-based responses through the lens of substance use and addiction are happening and supported by the municipality, what is the barrier to supporting this particular community-based response?"

According to harm reduction organizer Travis Laver, a PhD candidate in sociology at the University of Windsor, the city is among the "worst per capita" when it comes to the level of opioid use in the province.

"The CTS was just the beginning of a more official response to the drug crisis," said Laver. "I'm proud to see the mayor of Belleville taking some leadership there and putting pressure on council to say, 'We recognize this as a service that's required for the health and safety of our citizens.' I think Windsor should absolutely do the same thing.”

Earlier this month, Belleville declared a state of emergency after emergency personnel were called to 23 drug overdoses in a 48-hour span.

According to WECHU data, EMS workers in Windsor-Essex responded to 65 calls for suspected drug misuse in January.

Windsor Mayor Drew Dilkens has previously said taxpayers should not foot the bill for the operational cost of SafePoint.

Laver said while some residents may push back on the idea of seeing a portion of their taxes contribute to a CTS site, residents are already paying for region's mental health and addictions crises in other ways.

"We're already spending money on it, when it comes to the burden on our healthcare system, our police force and paramedics — whether that's city, provincial or federal funding. It's still affecting us," said Laver. "So we're already dealing with it."

In a statement to CTV News, WECHU said requested increases from municipal funders would be driven by the need to support its core services.

However, WECHU — which recently laid off 10 per cent of its staff due to financial pressures — also said consumption and treatment sites fall under a provincial model of care.

"We have been and will also remain a strong advocate for the CTS in our community as it has demonstrated a positive impact in the growing local opioid crisis during its months of operation," WECHU added.

Windsor West NDP MPP Lisa Gretzky. (Sanjay Maru/CTV News Windsor)

Following the mayor of Belleville's announced promise, Windsor West NDP MPP Lisa Gretzky took aim at the Ford government.

"No municipality should ever be put in the position where they are subsidizing or funding health care when the province has the money to do it and has the responsibility to do it," she said.

According to Gretzky, shifting the sole responsibility of funding CTS sites to the municipal level would do little to make reopening SafePoint a reality.

"Ultimately, the province has the responsibility for funding the healthcare system in order to make sure that all the supports and services are in place," she said. "At the end of the day, these are people's lives. There are people who love and care about these folks. So I applaud the mayor of Belleville for taking the step he did."

CTV News reached out to the office of Windsor Mayor Drew Dilkens but did not hear back by this article’s publication date.

In an emailed statement, a spokesperson for Ontario's Ministry of Health said its review of 17 provincial CTS sites remain ongoing and will "inform the next steps...including funding, location and application decisions."

Between April and December of 2023, SafePoint operated as Windsor's only safe consumption and treatment services site.

Besides being a place where people could consume substances under supervision, SafePoint also offered connections to mental health services, referrals to social supports and harm reduction supplies.

According to WECHU data, the number of visits at SafePoint progressively increased during its eight months of operations — going from 64 in May 2023 to 258 in October 2023.

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