WINDSOR, ONT. -- The Windsor-Essex County Health Unit (WECHU) is moving forward to secure property to house the region’s first safe consumption and treatment services site for those using illicit drugs.

On Friday, the WECHU issued a news release noting it is seeking expressions of interest for those with land or a space that could serve the project.

“Selection of the site we knew would be a contentious issue, would be a challenging issue but, we need to move forward,” says Theresa Marentette, the CEO and chief nursing officer for the WECHU.

Marentette points to numbers compiled by health unit staff, which show the opioid problem in Windsor-Essex has not abated during the COVID-19 pandemic, as proof a new approach is needed.

From January to June of this year, there have been 148 recorded opioid overdoses in Windsor-Essex — an increase from the 138 over the same period in 2019.

Through April of 2020, there have been 23 opioid-related deaths compared to 28 through the same period last year. There were 47 opioid-related deaths in total for 2019.

Marentette says a safe consumption site is key to achieving its harm reduction goals as part of the Windsor-Essex Community Opioid and Substance Strategy.

“It will be a game-changer because we don’t have one right now,” says Marentette. “We know that people who actually would use the service have said they would use the service and they also say that they’re injecting alone, which we know is a risk factor. Someone who injects alone can die alone.”

Partners like Hotel-Dieu Grace Healthcare see the site as an important part of tackling the opioid crisis in the region.

Janice Kaffer, the president and CEO of the hospital, says a consumption site will serve to provide a continuum of care for those suffering with addiction.

“This site won’t be the appropriate access point for everyone but, it will be a safe access point for some and for those individuals it may be a gateway into treatment which is a really, really important thing for us to offer in our community,” says Kaffer.

Kaffer credits the Windsor Overdose Prevention Society (WOPS) for its advocacy work in highlighting the need in the community.

The group has set up a mobile tent in neighbourhoods around the city, mostly downtown, to help inform the community about safe consumption sites.

For Brandon Bailey with WOPS, a designated site where a person using drugs can do so safely creates a pathway to recovery.

“When you show somebody that their life is worth something then they start to believe that their life is worth something and then they want to get to a more healthy point,” says Bailey. “It’s just about building people back up so that then people can put themselves in a better life situation.”

According to Marentette, the downtown area is being targeted for the site as it is in the closest proximity to where drug use is happening in the region.

Marentette says where consumption sites have been located there have been fewer discarded needles and fewer instances of people injecting drugs in public places.

While officials recognize there will be community apprehension to the plan, Kaffer points to Hotel-Dieu’s success with its mental wellness centre in the downtown which faced its own opposition.

“Part of how you change minds and hearts really is about being a good landlord, a good partner, making sure that you have open and transparent ways for individuals to talk about what’s happening, dealing with problems right away,” says Kaffer.

Marentette notes, as with the process to develop the broader opioid action plan, there will be further community consultation as part of the consumption site project.

The deadline for submissions to the request for expressions of interest is set for Sept. 4. A question and answer session with perspective proponents is planned for Aug. 28.